Svetlana Meritt | Coming home to the Black Madonna

Because we have a couple of days before we go to see Annie again, we’re doing a little sightseeing. I insisted on visiting Arles, even though this city was not on Dwight’s list of places that needed cleansing. But it was in Arles that Van Gogh took refuge from Paris and lived for two years, and Van Gogh is one of my favorite modern artists. He strove, just as I do, to express happiness by creating beauty. I love his powerful, wide, passionate (Dwight says “disturbed”) brushstrokes; I love his intense colors and the quality of light in his pictures. It’s the light of Provence, vibrant, revealing, bursting, the light famous among French artists.

But Arles also has a long history. It was a prosperous city in the Roman Empire, the first-century amphitheater still standing intact in the middle of present-day Arles. In fact, during the Middles Ages, a small town was built inside the amphitheater, complete with two hundred houses and watchtowers.

Arles is situated at the tip of the Camargue, the marshy delta of the Rhône, where the river forks and continues its dual course to the Mediterranean Sea. The city marks an unofficial border between Languedoc and Provence, and energetically that’s very pronounced. It’s a good-energy place, a place that feels quiet and happy. I don’t sense any feelings of desolation and poverty that permeate so many Languedocian towns we’ve visited.

This is my first encounter with the famous Provençal colors and motifs. Street after street is lined with shops that sell tablecloths, napkins, cushions, pillows, mats, pottery, and all sorts of home accessories in gorgeous yellows, blues, purples, and golds, the hallmark of Provence. Whole fields and orchards are transported onto the cloth and clay: lemons, olives, lavender bouquets, rosemary branches, bunches of sunflower …. This is joy itself, these colors, this sun that drenches the vegetation. I can’t get enough of these colors. I enter every shop, I browse through hundreds of tablecloths of various shapes and sizes and colors and motifs. They make me feel so happy, these golden-yellow tones full of sun.

Dwight is unusually patient with my shop-hopping. I think he enjoys the colors too. These tablecloths that flutter in the wind in front of every shop are like paintings. The whole city is a like a big work of art. The shutters on many houses we pass are painted sun-yellow, pots vibrant with flowers hung on the inside of the open shutters. As we stroll the streets, we see Roman ruins strewn everywhere, incorporated into the fabric of the city. Two Corinthian columns supporting a fragment of the temple architrave are inserted into the wall of a nineteenth-century building. We take our café-crème at the Place du Forum, which Van Gogh painted in his famous canvas Café Terrace at Night.

Is it the proximity of the Camargue marshes, famous for its cowboys and white horses galloping unbridled through shallow waters; is it this hot and sharp southern sun, or is it some other invisible quality of energy here that infuses Arles with this artistic and passionate energy? Dwight takes a picture of me in the courtyard of the old hospital, now the Van Gogh gallery. The courtyard offers a riotous sight of colors exploding in the midday sun, the flowers frolicking and reveling, the trees swinging genially over them, the bougainvillea branches shooting up the walls, untamed, in one frozen motion of pink and purple. Abundance.

It’s just as Van Gogh painted it.

While driving through Marseille the following day to meet Annie, I carefully examine the suburbs we pass through. Which area of Marseille is Annie going to recommend? I suddenly remember my visit to Liana in Colorado.

“Dwight,” I say excitedly, “this is just what happened when I turned the globe at Liana’s! This is where my finger landed, on Marseille!”

“Well, your Guidance is working,” Dwight says with conviction.

But this time it’s much harder to find a parking place. I drive around and around the neighborhood of St. Victor. “Where is your parking luck?” Dwight mutters in a half-joking and half-frustrated tone of voice. I have to park a considerable distance from the steps that lead down to the port and the brasserie.

“Cheer up,” I take Dwight’s hand, “this way we’ll get to see more of Marseille.”

Dwight casts a displeased glance at me because walking the city streets amidst the car fumes triggers his asthma. But his expression changes as he looks me over. “You look very pretty today,” he says with a tone of admiration. “Any special occasion?”

I blush a little. “Well, you know, for coming home,” I mumble. But it’s really meeting Annie and reconnecting with my feminine roots in Marseille that has inspired me to put on my long black skirt and black top, my sequined black sandals, sparkly white necklace and long metal belt that gives my outfit a touch of a romantic, pre-twentieth-century look.

It’s mid-morning, and the brasserie has just opened but is still empty. We go inside, looking for Annie. She’s arranging glasses at the bar. When she sees us she lets out a little squeal.

“We’ve come,” says Dwight, “just as we agreed.”

There is a flicker of embarrassment on Annie’s defiant and self-confident face. “I’m really sorry,” she begins awkwardly, “but I didn’t get the paper this morning. They always deliver it before I leave for work. I don’t know what happened this morning….” She shrugs and spreads her hands, as if to say, “not really my fault.”

A moment of silence fills the space between us. The counter that divides us seems to erect a line between our two worlds. Three days ago, I had the impression that our worlds were intermingling; now, they seem fully apart, without any point of contact. Annie stands behind this counter-wall in her gorgeous insouciance, and we are on the other side, two foreigners brought by the wind in one second and gone with the wind in another, just like hundreds of other costumers, without leaving a trace.

When she speaks again, Annie’s voice has already assumed a neutral, breezy tone. “Would you like some coffee?” she asks.

In unison, both Dwight and I shake our heads no.

“Well, all right, then,” says Dwight, who doesn’t seem as defeated as I am. “Goodbye.” And we leave the brasserie and my crushed hopes.

Looking back, the obvious solution of going to a newsstand and getting the paper simply didn’t occur to me at that moment of shattered expectations. Dwight took the whole episode as a sign; I, on the other hand, sulked, feeling let down.

“So where to now?” Dwight looks around the harbor, then turns to me.

I don’t care. We may as well go back to the States. I shrug.

“Oh, you’re letting this get at you—”

“WELL, HOW NOT TO!” I burst out. “We were led here, led to her—and it’s another dead-end!”

“I know,” Dwight says calmly. “It just means this is not where we’re supposed to live.”

I say nothing, feeling deeply hurt; worse—betrayed. If I can’t rely on my Guidance, on my deepest feelings and impressions, what can I rely on then? A strange emptiness gradually settles in my heart. In a flat voice I ask, but don’t really care if I get an answer, “And where do you think we’re supposed to live?”

Dwight doesn’t reply right away. He gazes at the other side of the port but he’s not really looking at anything. “We’ll find out, when the time is right,” is all he says.

Aimlessly, we begin to walk around the Old Port. We go to the famous Canebière, the long, wide avenue that every sailor dreams about. Then we drive to the old church of Mary Magdalene, sadly truncated to make space for the new, cavernous cathedral that looms in an out-of-place Byzantine style above the new docks. Then we go to Le Quartier du Panier, the oldest part of Marseille—ancient Massalia—where the Greek settlers built temples. This is where Magdalene used to preach in the public square long gone. This area is directly across the harbor from St. Victor and the brasserie. We have a different view of the harbor now, a view that doesn’t feel familiar anymore. We sit on a bench that faces the harbor and St. Victor, where I had my epiphany a few days ago. I look at the massive church impassively, with strange detachment. I no longer feel at home in Marseille.

Dwight takes my hand and plants a kiss. “Well done,” he says.

“Well done, what?” I feel a stab of shame in my heart. “Not being able to control my emotions? Having an outburst just like in the past?”

“True, but you’ve bounced right back. In the past, you would have been complaining all the time. And look at you now—already composed.”

“All right, you have a point. It is progress. But I’m certainly totally confused. What was all this about with Annie? I have Guidance or I don’t have Guidance? And what happened to my first impression of Marseille—coming home? Was that an illusion or some kind of a test?”

“You’ll find out, just be patient.” Dwight pats me on the knee with complete assurance. Then he looks up at the high-rises in the distance and says after a moment, “At least we know that Marseille is not the place for us. It’s just another metropolis, noisy and congested.”

At the end of the day, Dwight takes a detour road back to our hotel. He wants to show me Cassis, a charming coastal town. But he also wants to inquire about less expensive hotels to stay in. Cassis reminds me of towns on the Dalmatian coast where I spent many summers in my youth. The streets are steep and charming, lined with oleander and rosemary bushes. Pine trees spread their crowns above flat roofs of houses painted white. We meet a couple, British expatriates, who give us helpful tips on life in Cassis, rentals, prices, and good restaurants. This would be a nice place to live…. But when we come down to the main promenade where cafés are lined up facing the marina, I have a few short minutes to take in the beauty of the bay, then the fog skids in and envelops us. I’m stunned. The milky, clammy shroud hides everything from view—just like in Italy. Dwight shakes his head in disbelief: such thick fog, in mid-summer….

“Just means this is not where we’re supposed to live,” I say tongue-in-cheek, but actually deeply serious inside. I look around as if to see an invisible escort who has power over the forces of nature (my Teacher perhaps?) and who follows me everywhere to make sure I don’t make wrong decisions because I’m enchanted by the view.

When I wake up the following morning, I’m not surprised that I had this very vivid dream: I’m by the sea in an unfamiliar town. The sea is very close, intensely blue, inviting, but when I try to get in to swim, it starts to move away from me! The farther I walk, the farther the sea recedes, until it becomes almost like a mirage, shimmering in the distance, unreachable….

I don’t need Dwight’s help to interpret this dream. But I feel like having a word with my Guidance. I’d like to ask, “Could you please explain what’s going on? Why do you send me these teasers to get my hopes all up, then crush them—”

Just as I wrote these words in my journal, sitting on the terrace after breakfast, a thought gets downloaded into my brain and all of a sudden I realize: I was completely wrong in the way I interpreted the “coming home” feeling! I understood it literally as coming home to Marseille, while it had to do with coming home to my roots, the Magdalene heritage.

I put down my pen and stare blankly, stunned. I’ve done the same thing that people had done for centuries with the Grail myth and the story of the treasure—understood them literally as physical objects, whereas they were metaphors for inner treasure. I drain the last sip of my second cappuccino, still staring without seeing anything. The purpose of going to Marseille seems so clear now.

Dwight emerges from the hotel with a map and a piece of paper. “I had a nice talk with the receptionist,” he says, “and he gave me some suggestions where to look for a gîte. That’s the best way to have a base while we look around for a house.”

A gîte is the French version of agro-tourism: a restored and fully-furnished old house in the countryside. In France, this is the most popular way to travel—renting a gîte for a week or two or longer—much less expensive than staying in hotels, plus much more picturesque.

Surprisingly, in the first village we go to, Vernègues, we find a gîte we like. A two-story, stone cottage, beautifully furnished in Provençal colors, with a spacious garden, high up in the hills above Salon-de-Provence. We like its solitary location, no neighbors on either side of the traffic-less road. It takes a while to locate the owners (through the receptionist’s contact, then her acquaintance, and finally her friend), but when we do, the owners are very efficient. We sign the contract for a month’s rental and move in the next day.

“You see,” Dwight says in a somewhat victorious voice, “we were not supposed to live in Marseille.”

It was another homecoming I was meant to experience there.

EDITOR’s NOTE: The above memoir is from Meet Me in the Underworld: How 77 Sacred Sites, 770 Cappuccinos, and 26,000 Miles Led Me to My Soulpublished by Hypatia House and reprinted with permission.


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