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It’s a given nowadays that at some point in our distant ancestral past, bipedal and no doubt hirsute forebears marched out of Africa. Thousands of years later, mine showed up in Northern Europe, from whence they sailed to North America only hundreds of years ago—hardly a blink in the continuum of time.

But in the millennia between the African exodus and their establishment in the British Isles and Northern France, where were they? What were they doing?

I have no idea in specific terms. But in general terms, the limestone rocks and caves of Southern France offer rich clues to our passage from nomadic early humans to our present, early 21st century version of Homo sapiens sapiens—Sapiens for short.

I had only to look at the extravagant limestone cliff overhangs in Les Eyziers en Tayac—with what appear to be window holes in them—to see the ways that rocks and stones connect us through time. For there, below the ledges that sheltered early humans, dwellings, hotels and restaurants are still built into the same rocks. And elsewhere, in nearby Rocamadour above the Dordogne River, for example, castles and church spires tower over an entire medieval town spun from rock, making its residents truly cliff dwellers.

But our remote ancestors did not actually live inside cliffs any more than they lived in caves—which were too damp, dark and dangerous to occupy. What they did is take and make shelter there—and in many cases extraordinary and symbolic works of art—while they lived in portable shelters, rather like the Plains Indians of North America. These were easier to heat and pack up for relocation when the need arose for hunting.

Les Eyziers is the site of Le Musée National de Préhistoire of France, and as such, houses artifacts, displays and an astonishing number of flint tools which were the bedrock of the stone-age culture. But for me, hunting my ancestors, what stopped me in my tracks was the model, based on fossil remains, of a Neanderthal woman (named Wilma to be sure) and her baby. Her slightly furrowed forehead told me that it was no easy thing to bring up and protect that child in the environment in which they lived, a small ice age with tundra to live upon and herds of wild animals their best resource for survival.

But what also moved me was her coloring—reddish wisps of hair over freckled white skin and gray-green eyes. The coloring of members of my family. This, of course, is quite possible considering that for most people of European (and Asian) ancestry, Neanderthals are us. For several thousand years, beginning about 40,000 years ago, the two species, Neanderthal and Sapiens, coexisted until the Neanderthal…disappeared. There are many ideas about what happened, but one thing is certain: in part they disappeared into us. From 1%-4% of the DNA of most modern Europeans and Asians is Neanderthal.

Even as the Neanderthals were beginning to fade, an even closer ancestor, Cro-Magnon, was busy making highly sophisticated art inside caves throughout Southern Europe and the Middle East. For me, experiencing the images inside the reconstructed cave of Lascaux II was astonishing. The cave itself is small, and was discovered in 1940 by four teenage boys in what is now a lush woodland. The pictures, with one exception only of animals, project colors and a realistic knowledge of the animals’ anatomy and movements that become transformed into stylized scenes of ritualistic meaning.

Many experts believe the paintings are shamanistic, and the shamans themselves are seen in the form of horses that disappear beyond the rocks, symbolizing that they themselves also go beyond the known world into one unseen. The portrayal of light, shadows and movement would be best seen by torches carried into the darkness.

Although there are also many different theories about the meaning of these cave paintings, one aspect of them seems beyond dispute: that the rock structure with its arches overhead and its narrowing passages leads the artist, and the viewer, deeper and deeper into the heart of a mystery. And that the space is a sacred one. Not unlike modern places of worship inside stone structures with domes, narrow passageways, and refracted, mysterious light.

Not unlike European Gothic cathedrals, with their high arching ribs, their stained glass windows and candles scattering holy light, their altars inside naves containing the heart of their mysteries. I sense my ancestors felt at home first in one, then migrated to the other.

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Beauty and the Beast

 

It is a day during spring break for my grandchildren, the lucky ones, who have a lovely home, an thriving family, a marvelous school. It is a day we are sharing with those who are refugee children, who have none of the above. After playing at their house, after games and toys and selected gifts of books and a fine lunch, we all pile in a car and go to the nearby mall to see the newest hit children’s movie, “Beauty and the Beast.”

No continent nor country has a monopoly on the blatant gap that exists between its citizens who are materially blessed and those who live among them in desperation. But as I am again a visitor to Jakarta—and an avowedly “blessed” one—I am today painfully aware of how the gap becomes a gilded crevasse Asian-style.

Today I spent much time with some of these refugees, who number in the thousands here and represent only a small percentage of our fellow humans who are trying for mere survival. By fleeing impossible homelands for unknown futures, they are ensnared by separation from home and family, by poverty, uncertainty, and the imprisonment of endless waiting.

Today, I chatted and walked among them because of my daughter, Heather, who with her friend Ashley saw the need, and two years ago took on the arduous task of founding a school, a center, a gathering place for these desperate and misplaced persons trying to find a safe harbor somewhere in the world. The center is called Roshan, meaning Bright in Farsi, the most common language for its habitués who mostly come from Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.

Today while in the reception area for the school, I chatted with R., a young man from Iran who has been here for three years. He now works at the school as a guard in exchange for a room, good digs for one in his position. In decent English he tells me his story. About wanting a life for his family, about the little three-year-old daughter he left behind who is now seven, about missing her terribly. About waiting. “How is it with Mr. Trump?” he asks. “Always we hear news from Internet.”

I leave the Roshan Center to return to my daughter’s house, where S., from Pakistan, is waiting at a table in the sitting room, her round, smooth face looking up from behind her headscarf. My grandchildren and her four children are playing in various corners of the house—a palace by the standards of the shelter where they are now living. Twice S. has fled her abusive husband—a culturally courageous act, and in these circumstances, also a dangerous one. A refugee—a woman– with no means of support and no legal protection, she has tried to keep her family together under horrible circumstances.

 The first shelter she landed in kept them as virtual prisoners and often forgot to feed them or bring water. The mosquitos were so prevalent that she contracted dengue fever and was sent to a hospital while the children were left to fend for themselves. Someone contacted my daughter, who got S. released from the hospital and brought the family to her own house until a different, better shelter could be found.

Still, the abusive husband is on the prowl to find them, which makes going out very difficult and  renders it impossible for the children to return to school, where they were thriving and the girls at the top of their classes in English. For an hour S. and I sip tea together while she tries to explain her plight in the English she, too, acquired at Roshan Center, when she was able to go. “Mr. Trump?” she says, as if posing an existential question. “For me, my situation…” she shakes her head to complete the thought.

The mall where we have come for an afternoon’s distraction is a marble and gold splendor, similar to others I’ve visited in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore. We thread our way past the name brands vaunting the first-class tastes of the world’s wealthy—Louis Vuitton and Tiffany, Hermes and Armani, to find our plush seats in the air-conditioned theater. There, together, we watch the unfolding drama of the rough-hewn beast and the feisty girl with a wise heart in a crumbling castle where wolves in the forest and vain and heartless men from the village threaten to crush all vestiges of human hope.

Hope, and love—this is a fairy tale—prevail of course, and the children, move on to eating fancy gelato,  giggling and discussing the meaning of the story they have, however briefly, shared. Then S. and her children get back in the car to return to the shelter, where the next day it will be again impossible for the children to go to school. Where, today, they will wait. Meanwhile, my children will return to the lovely house with sunlight and a garden, the house on the other side of the crevasse, and resume their lives among the blessed, which will continue tomorrow.

……………………………..

                                    RedBudsCourt

 

The answer seems to be a resounding “Oui.”

Doug and I pulled into our beloved Aix-en-Provence a little over a week ago, and returning had the familiar feel of coming home after a long vacation.  The traffic signs, the bends in the road,the first great embrace of spraying fountains.FountainLarotonde Except we didn’t exactly know where we were going.  

This time, instead of going to the lovely country house with its shaded terraces 600 meters from the city limit where we lived last year, we were coming to a small rented apartment in the center of town. This time, instead of coming in fall when the honeyed light of summer turned the buildings golden and came to rest in the plump vegetables, we came in early spring, just at that season when the leaves seem to leap from the skin of empty branches. TreeTowerSt.J.deM

This time, while the food markets are full of first strawberries and asparagus and the usual mounds of olives, cheese, bread, sausages and wonders as far as you can see, my eyes are drawn even more to the flower markets, where the scent leads me, too.marche aux fleurs

 

And even more, this time, instead of wandering, and getting lost in the winding medieval streets like the ingénues we were, we go purposefully through the maze wherever we intend, brushing past the newly arrived struggling with maps. We cross town by foot several times a day (it’s easy, especially since to Doug’s relief we’ve ditched the car), hop on the bus system we know well (I even had a valid ticket) and have plugged right back in to where we left off.

 

 My first day back I tended to the essentials: I went to the fabulous Cité du Livre and renewed my card for the Bibliothèque Méjanes. Within minutes I had my hands on valued books I need to revisit. Next act—whip out my “fidelity” card, still valid, at the local Monoprix and save a few Euros.

 But the main sense of being back, of belonging, is not so much in plugging into a well-functioning system as it is being back in the embrace of wonderful people. There are of course, friends, like our incomparable pal Maurice who rushed to meet us at Deux Garçons (see previous blog) our first night back, who comes to films with us, who had us to dinner, and who is ever ready to bail us out of whatever mess we might be in.  

Then there are those who greet us like friends. Isa, manager at the nail salon who loves kooky sneakers and wears her hair piled up in rolls like conjugal snails, leapt to give me kisses on the cheeks, saying “Where have you been?” And, while filing my nails, coyly quizzed me as to whether I would say nice things about her in my next novel.  

There’s Anne, the manager of the one-in-a-million bookstore Book in Bar (see previous blog), who came from behind the counter to give me a big hug and say, “I just sold one of your books two days ago, so I knew you must be coming.”

Anne

 

 And there are all Doug’s hiking pals who arranged a “low-stress” hike just for him along an old Roman canal last Saturday because of his foot issue (7 ½ hours, but on flat terrain) and welcomed him like a long-lost member of the tribe. “You are coming back, aren’t you?” they quizzed him, knowing our stay here is a shave less than a month.Hikers

 

And then there  are Alain and Alexis, the Click and Clack of brotherly love in the French wine trade. When we stopped by their shop for the first time (note this is on our regular route), Alain, who was about to leave, gave us both a bear hug. “Ah, c’est vous enfin,” he said, then immediately began pulling bottles from the shelves that he remembered we had liked. “Un bon Paradis,” he said, handing one to Doug before reaching for a white Cassis he knew I would like, then moving onto some highly recommended Côtes du Rhône. We chatted briefly—about his kids, who sometimes waited in the car when he made deliveries to our house last year—about the weather. “It’s perfect,” he said. “You have brought it from California. 

When he left, we turned to chat a bit with Alexis behind the counter. He acknowledged that terrorism is up this year, and tourism is down. The state of things is not good. There are problems with the Euro, the terrible situation with refugees, a great cynicism about politics, and open talk about the break-up of the European Union. He had just been to a “dégustation” in Paris and the whole city seemed tense and afraid. 

I nodded sympathetically, instantly tuning into that French pessimism that I know so well. “What is the solution?” he asked despairingly.

Then he gave the perfect Provencal answer, adjusted to the season.

“Drink rose,” he smiled. “What else can one do?”

rose

 

 

                                    

Virgin Mary in Cordoba

Virgin Mary in Cordoba

 

It began in Seville the Saturday before Semana Santa, or Holy Week. On the evening that my colleague Linda Watanabe McFerrin and I took our newly arrived Wanderland Writers group to a welcome dinner through the winding streets of the old city, we passed a local church en route. There, for the first time, we encountered members of a local parish, or a brotherhood, wearing their characteristic headgear that could be described as “desert Bedouin” waiting to follow—or carry—an enormous “float” consisting of a statue sacred to that church ( a “paso”) and mounted on an elaborate carriage.

From their home churches, floats are typically paraded through the streets on a prescribed route, including circling or entering the cathedral before returning to their home churches sanctified. In the case of this, our first procession in Andalusia, the statue was of a Jesus on the cross, so realistic one of our writers thought it was a real human and feared the throngs surrounding him meant to do harm.PaseoSev.
To announce the coming procession, floats are frequently preceded by gold and silver staffs, banners and incense burners from the church, carried by officials, and followed by very lively bands heavy on drums and horns. Most disconcertingly for North Americans unaccustomed to Spanish Catholicism, often a phalanx of the marchers wearing robes, with covered faces and pointed hoods, march in front of the floats.
These are meant to be penitents, using the hood and mask as a mark of humility and anonymity, but the costumes are identical to those of the Ku Klux Klan, which adopted them (there is no relationship between them, I have often been assured) and may be green, blue, black as well as the familiar white.white hoods
Before our several days in Seville finished, we had seen many of these processions, as well as the inside of dozens of churches lit with candles, packed with worshippers, and celebrating special masses. To some of the faithful, these rituals of Holy Week, reminders of the suffering of Christ and the promise of redemption to come, are so powerful that they emerge from church weeping. At the same time, in perfect summation of the wonderfully contradictory nature of Spaniards, Semana Santa seems to be an enormous and often joyful party.
As my husband and I left Seville and crossed Adalusia, we found the same spirit everywhere: streets crowded, bars, restaurants and “tabernas” packed, families, young people, older couples, children—most dressed in their finery—staying up late on chilly nights to applaud the processions, follow in the streets, then celebrate with food and drink.FamilyG.

While “early-bird” Americans might be ready to fold their tents at 9:30, the Spaniards, including babies in strollers and well-behaved tots folded in their parents’ arms, were just getting started.
Although Seville, once a powerhouse of trade and wealth following the voyages of Columbus, is known for its displays of gold and silver—and its lavish processions during Semana Santa, as we left Palm Sunday, Holy Monday, and Seville behind, we found much the same fervor everywhere.
In Cordoba, the original Visigoth church was taken over by the conquering Moors in the 8th C., and eventually turned into the remarkable Mosque, or Mezquita, by successive reigning Caliphs through the 10th C. The site, at the center of the most prosperous, tolerant and cultivated city in Europe, was so awe-inspiring, that after Christian Reconquest in the 13th C., the new monarchs left it alone, and new Christian church structures were simply fit inside. Cordoba’s Cathedral with gothic, Renaissance and baroque features is contained within the cascades of Islamic arches and design. Indeed, 16th C. Emperor Charles V, having given permission to rip out the center of the mosque to build the altar area and choir, is reputed to have said to the architects, “You have destroyed something that was unique to the world.”

Even knowing the Mezquita/Cathedral’s storied history (it is now a World Heritage Site), it was still jaw-dropping to see throngs of worshippers gather in front to greet hooded penitents and the intricate floats—including one of a Virgin Mary in an elaborate white gown, gold crown and long purple robe— that emerged into a holy Christian night from the perfect Moorish arch over the Cathedral’s front door.

BlueHoodsC.

Surely, we imagined, away from these ancient and important cities, the celebrations would be on a smaller scale. So, as we entered the beautiful, small Renaissance town of Ubeda (which, along with its sister town Baeza is also a World Heritage Site) we were in no way prepared for what would greet us. Maunday Thursday, as the day is named on church calendars, is a national holiday throughout Spain and meant to recall the night of Christ’s Last Supper. If rolling floats with Jesus suffering, his betraying companions, and his weeping mother were now our familiars, so were impassible streets, crowds of elegantly dressed citizens, and the pounding of passionate drums, the wail of horns. Little Ubeda was in every way the equal of its more famous Andalusian cousins. In fact, it added something new (at least to us).
Following the processions of floats, musicians, hooded penitents, came a formation of exquisitely dressed women wearing black from head to toe, their coiffed heads topped with combs and mantillas. Like widows, these women in black meant to invoke mourning for Jesus. MantillasU
Grenada, the luscious “Pomegranate” and last stronghold of the Moors so coveted by Queen Isabella that she finally conquered it in 1492, followed. It was our last stop in Andalusia, and, we thought, we had seen what Semana Santa had to offer. That did not take into account our garage right on the parade route being “closed for religion” for 24 hours at a stretch—nor what Good Friday had in store. We had learned from our travels that Seville, while blessed with huge quantities of gold and silver from the treasure of America, did not hold a monopoly. All the towns and cities of the region seemed to have plenty to display. It seemed to us that this display of wealth, which formed kind of foundation for many of the “pasos” must have a symbolic meaning—perhaps of balancing the messages of suffering with those of the Church’s strength.

But as the Good Friday processions rounded the corner where we were staying in Granada, we witnessed a different balance: a bedrock of gold work so dazzling we could hardly see the body of Jesus hanging on his cross. Only his nailed feet were visible beneath a cloud of incense; the gold dazzles in our sight still.

/PaseoChrist'sFeeetG

Hong Kong Tree

Decades ago, I spent a few magical days in Hong Kong, and since then have only flown over or through the airport. This time, en route to Indonesia, I thought my husband and I could break our trip with a bit of rest and a quick look at that iconic city.

I imagined crowded, crooked streets, noise, hawkers, blinking lights, noodle shops, lanes of fabulous cloth bordered by the signs of fabled tailors. In my mind’s eye, fancy hotels and glittering high rises were somewhere on the periphery, and the beckoning harbor busy with ships always in view.

As it turned out, fatigue overcame adventure and we slept more than intended. In fact, we never left Hong Kong Airport, a city in itself. Instead of the bustling, pungent metropolis, we encountered only a clean, air-conditioned version of Santaland that could put most American malls to shame.

It started with the multi-storied Christmas tree in our airport hotel. The closest comparison that came to mind was Neiman-Marcus in downtown San Francisco with a gigantic frosted tree filling its Victorian atrium. Well, a tree is one thing, but what to make of surrounding scenes of snow-covered houses, twinkling lights, colored balls—and Santas everywhere. And, of course, sales. What to think of the endless American Christmas music, 50s-style, with long-dead crooners throbbing from every loud-speaker: “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and of course “Rudolph”?IMG_1237

Trying to make sense of this, I rummaged through what I know of Hong Kong—it’s famed Buddha, its British past, its (presumably) Communist present, to account for the Christmas boom.Airport Scene While pondering and waiting for our flight, two elf-like young people in seasonally red suits with Santa hats followed the moving walkway singing Christmas carols. I was with them through “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” But when they burst into “Feliz Navidad,” my Buddhist-British-Communist construct fell apart.

Landing in Jakarta, where we’ve been many times in recent years, I figured I’d be on surer ground. I figured wrong. We’d actually never been here at Christmas. Encountering streams of blinking lights, ubiquitous Santas, greetings, holiday sales, vast decorated trees, and oh, yes, did I mention American Christmas songs? in this capital of the most populous Moslem country in the world did come as something of a surprise.

I had never imagined people greeting us with “Merry Christmas” here; nor taking our grandchildren ice skating on a rink crowded with bundled-up Indonesians, many of them gliding by in hijabs;skating nor watching them climb on fake polar bears. As for Santa climbing a frosty Eiffel Tower nestled between Cartier and Louis Vuitton….Tour Eiffel

Outside the palm trees bend in a thunder storm and the bougainvillea climbs up my window sill clamoring for the sun. I strain to hear the call to prayer, as I always have on previous visits. But this time I hear “Jingle Bells” and wonder at the transformation. I try to picture other great Asian cities I’ve visited—Shanghai, Saigon, Bangkok, Singapore—and imagine them as variations on the same. That is, I imagine them with dazzling displays of Christmas greetings, none of them having to do with Christianity.

That big C writ everywhere? How about Commerce, Cash, or Capitalism—far from humility, charity and loving thy neighbor as thyself, but powerful global messages for our time.Jakarta Mall

A Heart Divided

IMG_0296

 

“Isn’t it so hard to leave Aix?”

 

“Are you happy to be back?California-Poppies-simplesojourns.com_

 

Questions posed by friends (along with “Will you ever leave?”) at the moment of our uprooting from a delight-filled almost-year in Provence, to return to our home in Oakland, overlooking San Francisco Bay.

 

The answer is an unequivocal “yes.”

 

Yes because there is much we miss, and yes because there is much we are happy to find again.

 

Some pull-and-tug impressions upon first getting back.

 

Markets. Where are the glorious. colorful mounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, the cheese seller, the succulent roasted hams and chickens, the array of fish on ice, our friend Alain, the wine guy who delivers, all part of our daily lives in Aix-en-Provence?market Aix

 

Answer: Not here. But what is here is probably the best selection of everything in the U.S. Although it was a shock to realize that even at our favorite grocery store, vegetables and fruit come fortified in plastic wrap, we know we can find an amazing array of high quality, pulled from the ground produce, grand cheese, supreme meat and fish. But it’s not there in tempting open-air stalls every day all year long. We have to search for it.

 

Cuisine. Provençal food with its variations on all things olive, its fresh herbs, grilled vegetables, its seafood and pork and goat cheeses, what’s not to miss? But finding our local Mexican restaurant again, with its fresh corn tortillas and chicken soup with avocado, its tamales and super salsa, what’s not to love?15803529-tortilla-soup-mexican-cuisine

 

Newspapers. Let’s put it like this: For the long flight home, I bought a copy of Le Monde Diplomatique to help pass the hours, which it did. I was particularly engrossed with a double-page spread on the latest thinking about our prehistoric historic ancestors; On our second day home, I picked up a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle, in which a front-page story was dedicated to the latest innovation in combatting public impropriety. We now have walls, where, if you pee on them, they will pee back on you. Really? As a former journalist, I’ll leave it there.

 

Style. It was on an airport bus that it really hit me: Many of my compatriots dress as if they had just fallen out of bed, or were on their way to the gym (although by the looks of most, not really). T-shirts with weird logos, sweats, sneakers. This seems to be our uniform regardless of the venue—public transportation, a jog around the park, the theater, a nice restaurant. I remembered with a pang how stylish the French seem, not just the old couples with beautiful suits, hats, ties and gloves, but everybody, even the kids. Sure they wore jeans (sometimes with fashionable holes in them), but their hair was combed, even if long or buzzed, and they wore scarves around their necks. Sure I saw plenty of tattoos, piercings, and my young manicurist had spiky hair that went from pink to blue. Still, people appear to put themselves together in a way that says, “I care what I look like.” And it is a pleasure to look at them.

 

Roads. I could go on and on about the virtues of French transportation, which indeed deserves all kinds of hosannas. But coming back to roads, from Hwy. 50, the “loneliest road in America” across Utah and Nevada, to secondary roads and small, back ones near home that are actually wide enough for two cars to pass AND which don’t drop off suddenly into deep ditches with no shoulders, is a true blessing. As for signs that actually tell you what’s ahead and how far, as opposed to the “Toutes Directions” signs, which may not actually include all directions, especially the one you want: another blessing.

 

Appliances. Reuniting with a dishwasher that holds the dishes without the racks folding, that doesn’t leak, and doesn’t take one hour and a-half to finish; having a washing machine that takes more than a sheet, a pair of socks and two tea towels at a time and doesn’t take one hour and a half to finish; having a drier, period—I realize that somewhere in there, I’m just an American girl when it comes to household stuff that works.imagesK3E1BHOMfrench-style-basics-striped-top-distressed-skinny-jeans-camel-coat-black-pumps-ombre-hair-fashion-blog-the-august-diaries9

 

Greetings. I’m back in the land of “Hello, I’m Veronica, and I’m your server”; and “Have a nice day, you guys.” And I distinctly miss the “Bonjour, Madame, Monsieur,” followed by “Bonne journée,” with no Happy Face written all over it.

 

Beauty. The patches of green and gold stretching down from the hilltop where Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire in the distance, the light playing over the red tile rooftops and the valley are there now when we blink open our eyes. This was our neighborhood, and the pine and laurel trees of our hillside, the church spires of old Aix, its winding, ancient streets with their endless surprises.Mont St. Victoire

We have returned from intense heat to morning and evening fog, to a hillside lined with oaks and pines and redwoods, to an eastward landscape of hills and valleys rolling like the sea, and a westward view of San Francisco and bridges and the bay beneath. We no longer have a day and night symphony of birdsong, as we did in Aix. But on our first week home, a large buck with an impressive rack of antlers marched slowly up the street in midday, as if to greet us.

 

Friends and Family. We have left dining with Maurice and other dear ones on the terrace under the great, spreading fig tree, drinking cool Provençal rosé under the late light of summer skies. We have come here, to sit on the deck with friends and family, drinking pinot noir from the Russian River, and to toast the magnificent sunset arching over the Golden Gate to the Pacific.imagesU61B3KRD

 

Home is where the heart is, and it can beat in two places at once.

Mural from dining hall at Les Milles

Mural from dining hall at Les Milles

 

When at the local tourist office, upon first learning about the camp at Les Milles, barely outside my temporary hometown of Aix-en-Provence, I can’t say I wanted to go there. But I knew I would. Having been to Holocaust memorials and museums—having been to Auschwitz—I knew what I was in for. I also knew that since it was in my neighborhood, a visit would be compulsory. For those of us alive and well seventy-some years after the eruptions of World War II, the least we can do is to pay attention, to pay our respects.

So, along with my husband and French and American friends, I went. We arrived by bus, and walking along a dusty road of an old industrial area of Les Milles, found ourselves staring through a fence at a large, grim brick edifice. It had been a tile and brick factory from the 19th century to World War I, when it was abandoned. Then, in 1939, it found new life—and a new purpose—as a concentration camp, which operated for three years.

Camp des Milles

Sometimes called “the antechamber of Auschwitz,” it was intended first as a transit camp, until 1942, when it became a deportation center. After the war, like most such camps in France, it was destined for oblivion. But some thirty years ago, Alain Chouraqui discovered its existence, and led the long campaign to preserve it—to transform Les Milles from the site of unspeakable crimes to one of guidance toward a more humane future.

“We decided to fight to preserve this camp,” he said, “since we understood that this camp was in fact the last one preserved in France… We were interested in showing that the bad people were not only the Germans or Nazis, but they were French.

“The question of identity, racism, anti-Semitism ,” he also said, “are still very active and dangerous, and we want to show people how far it can lead societies.”

His point was abundantly clear when, as we approached the grounds, we entered a security clearing room one-by-one; offending objects such as pocket knives were removed from us, and a heavily armed soldier scrutinized from outside. Asked if this procedure had been in place long, he answered no, only since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January, 2015.

There is no sugar coating the dismal immensity of a 19th century tile factory, the cold, the dank, the dust of it. When such a place becomes a holding pen for human beings without adequate clothing, bedding, sanitary facilities, or food, its wretchedness cries out over decades.

But still, what we discovered at Les Milles astonished us: That despite the deprivations and fear, for the extraordinary collection of artists, musicians, and intellectuals thrown together there—more than 10,000 internees from many countries over three years—creation was resistance.

The Camp of Painters

The Camp of Painters

Initially the detainees were Germans living in France, some Nazis, but in one of the cruel ironies of the war, many were anti-fascists who had fled the Nazi regime. Then the numbers began to swell with dissident artists and intellectuals: painters including Max Ernst, Hans Belmer, Ferdinand Springer;

Ferdinand Springer

Ferdinand Springer

writers such as historian Golo Mann (son of Thomas Mann) and Lion Feuchtwanger, who would live to write a memoir about the camp, “The Devil in France”; and Nobel-Prize winning scientists Otto Meyerhof,

Otto Meyerhof

Otto Meyerhof

who won the prize for medicine in 1922, and Tadeus Reichstein, who would win it in 1950 for his invention of cortisone. There were architects, sculptors, orchestra conductors, journalists, comedians, and political dissidents.

I felt as if we met them in the silent dust they left behind. In the former kiln, stacked with bricks to create a stage and seats, prisoners created a theater named “The Catacombs,” after a cabaret in pre-war Berlin that had been shut down by the Nazis for its political satire and “depravity.” The sounds of Goethe’s “Faust”, of orchestra music, still echo there, just as the stories of lost loves and lives and hopes still exist in the graffiti of hearts, faces, messages, a Star of David left behind on the walls. In all, it is thought more than 300 original works were created at Les Milles, most of them eventually smuggled out.

The most visible of what remain are the murals of the guards’ dining hall, which burst with humor, color and satire. It was hard for me to imagine the kind of courage it took to create comedy in the face of despair, and my first instinct was to withhold my laughter. But I couldn’t, not in front of the cartoon-like figures in blue carrying trays; not when seeing the ironic message beneath plates piled high with delicious food: “If your plates aren’t very full, let our drawings calm your appetite.”

"If your plates aren't full enough..."

“If your plates aren’t full enough…”

And certainly not in front of the large mural of a comedic “Last Supper” featuring a cowboy, an Eskimo, a Henry VIII-like king, and others all gorging themselves on the food of their countries, while a disdainful figure—supposedly the Vichy camp commander—looks down at them from above. I decided that the artist meant for me to join him in laughter, which, like food, is always better shared. He was most likely Karl Bodek, who was deported to Auschwitz.

Visiting Les Milles invites such connections—with the artists and what they left for us, with the horrors of what took place here, but also with its heroes. There was the security guard Auguste Boyer who smuggled out Jewish children and sheltered them in his home. He was fired for his defiance. There was the French camp commander who ordered a freight car to take endangered dissidents close to Spain. There was the American journalist Vivian Fry who helped smuggle over 2,000 refugees—some from Les Milles—to safety in America. And there was the American Vice-Consul Hiram Bingham who worked with Fry by issuing false visas. He was also fired for defiance.

Defiance. Creativity. Resistance. This is where the visit ends, with a “Reflective” exhibit tracing not only the genocide of the Jews, but of other holocausts. Armenians, 1915-1916; Gypsies, 1939-1945; Rwandans, 1994.

The Scars of Rwanda

The Scars of Rwanda

It invites—challenges—each person to resist in large ways and small. To be intolerant of hate speech, to act against group pressure and stereotypes, to help stamp out racism wherever it’s found.

One picture is blown up to make its own powerful statement as a mural. It shows Germans at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin all standing to give the Nazi salute. But one man, who remains quietly sitting, arms crossed over his chest, resists.

Lone Dissenter

Lone Dissenter

As my companions and I left across the dusty yard to the exit, we were all pretty silent. I know what was on my mind, and later my husband said he was lost in the same thought. One of the many ways democracy can give way to authoritarian regimes, according to a display in the Reflective section, is when laws and governing principles protecting freedom and human rights are eviscerated and turned on their heads under a false veneer of legitimacy.

The display did not mention the American Patriot Act, nor the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, allowing unlimited and anonymous spending in political campaigns. Nor did it pose the question, “If you had been here at Les Milles, what would you have done?”

What it did ask, though, was far more difficult. “Who are you, really? And what do you intend to do now?”

 

The Fireside Angel, Max Ernst, 1937

The Fireside Angel, Max Ernst, 1937