Les Rituels Paeïns

Scotland, Rome, Basilicata, Slovenia, Torino. That’s been the last few months. Travel is a wonderful distraction, especially when you finally make it to places that have been on your wishlist for years.

For me, those would be the carnival events of Basilicata, an isolated and mostly neglected province at the bottom of Italy, and Slovenia, a small country at the edge of Eastern Europe. Although I am not certain of the precise origins of either carnival, they are both definitely pagan. These are the events onto which Christian meaning and rites were imposed, giving us Mardi Gras. In mostly rural areas over the centuries, locals have kept the original versions somewhat alive and they can still be found from the Baltic to Portugal during the months of January and February.

Kurents in Ptuj, Slovenia

The basic formula is this: a midnight bonfire is set to initiate the festivities. Local men dress in animal skins, paint their faces black or cover them with a headdress, wrapping big cowbells around their waists. Thus transformed into beings somewhere between animal, human and spirit, they go door to door around the village in small groups jumping up and down to make a clattering din with the bells, ‘frightening” the children, until they are sent off with sausage or some other token, taking the evil winter spirits of the house with them and thus allowing the spirits of spring to safely arrive.

It may sound cute, but in fact, the stakes were quite high in the original versions. The barren winter was bleak and difficult to endure. Spring allowed planting and the hope of a good harvest crucial to avoid famine. New lambs, calfs and piglets added to the larder. At this point, fertility could extend to people, with marriages and births. Fires brought heat, energy, life.

Carnival goers in Basilicata set a fire

The gods needed to be appeased. I imagine sacrifices at times went beyond giving up candy for Lent and girls had to be locked up.

The Sardinian and Bulgarian pagan-origin carnivals are perhaps the most widely known and visited. My objective was to find smaller, more intimate, events. I did, and they were thrilling. One of the benefits of modern times is that these festivities are now family affairs open to men and women, adults and children, with a parade, fried foods, free-flowing wine and cotton candy and no threat whatsoever. As always, they serve the purpose of tying communities together, if not physically then culturally. My goal for early 2024 is to be right back there for a faded glimpse of an ancestral world.

Carnival family in Basilicata, Italy

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January post-holidays is the perfect month to visit Italy. This means after Epifania, or January 6th. It’s not just that the big retail sales launch after this date, which in this era of global chain store hegemony does not interest me, or that you can get a four-star hotel for the price of a three-star, but super importantly that the selfie-obsessed mobs are absent. There are tourists year-round in Italy, but in January the phenomenon is at a tolerable level. Especially if, like me, you enjoy your museum or monument visit early in the day.

Rome, the Eternal City, did not disappoint. Yes, it is dirty, and thick with pickpockets, but the glorious monuments never cease to inspire awe. There are so many, everywhere you look. I hastened to one of my favorite spots, the Capitoline, from which you gaze over a vast tract of ancient columns comprising the Roman Forum, stony roads marked by triumphal arches and the path to the massive Colosseum. You can’t get much more ancient history than that.

Roman Forum from the Capitoline

I love how you could be on a dark, narrow street, where the sun is perpetually blocked by the angle, to suddenly emerge onto a sunny piazza dominated by the Pantheon, or a minor temple, or a Baroque fountain. The vistas are splendid at 360 degrees. Looking out from a park or terrace, the domes and spires of churches spanning a few centuries dot the skyline, and invite reveries of the distant past.

All that classical splendor happens before you enter the museums, or the churches harboring masterpieces by Bernini, Caravaggio and Raphael. You can never get to it all, and there’s always something newly excavated that becomes a must-see for a subsequent visit.

Bernini, The Abduction of Persephone,
at the Galleria Borghese

And there will be one. What I have described I had seen many times, and I thought I would never see Rome again. But a first cousin and I re-connected after many years, and I made a trip to see him and meet his family. I lingered, and visited the neighborhood I had lived in as a child, found the park with the view where my siblings and I would be taken for constitutional outings, walked through the Borghese gardens the family would visit on a Sunday afternoon.

The Borghese Gardens

Rome is drenched in history. In my case, a personal and ancestral one as well. But its eternality, the desire to return, is for everyone.

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This summer I went swimming. I went swimming in the Mediterranean and the Adriatic Seas, and in the Rivière d’Auray in Brittany.

For the first time in more than two decades, I also did a week of yoga. There were meridians shiatsu sessions involved too, as part of the retreat package. The latter was a little woo-woo but I just went with it. You know what? There’s something to it.

The best thing about the retreat was that it took place in a quiet spot on an island in Croatia, on the Dalmatian Coast. For nine days, from our lodging in a stone house at the end of a tiny peninsula, our group participated in a morning yoga session and an afternoon shiatsu session, and in-between we all swam in refreshingly cold, cristalline water or lounged in a comfy chair under the shady pines with a good book (bouquiner).

Prizba bay from our lodging

The wifi network was super spotty, there were no shops other than a teeny grocerette with mostly junk food, and only one decent restaurant so we had zero distractions in the environment. I would just sit and stare at the gorgeous scene for ages. As it turns out, it was the best thing ever. Remember daydreaming?

I experienced it as a pleasant and unexpected stopover in my journey through mourning. The old life will always co-exist with the new. But I will pick up my camera again. There will be happy times again.

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La Veuve

For the first time in my life in Nice, I am swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. A student of the human brain told me that entirely new experiences are restorative to a psychological upset. Perhaps she is right. In any case, what an excellent start to any summer day. 

8am, June, Nice, France

Most days I wake early and I am treading water by 7:00am. For 30 or 40 minutes, I float on the gentle swells and gaze on the horizon, at the faint, hazy outlines of yachts and ferries. At this time of day, there are only a few other people in the water, and a smattering are setting up chairs and umbrellas on the beach for the morning. The mind has space to roam.

When I return home, where I now live alone, I enact my strategy to stay cool. Shades come down, windows are shut, fans begin circulating air, salads are prepared to avoid the heat of the stove. Often that’s it for the day. I don’t venture out again. 

Most of my summer travel plans have been aborted for one reason or another, and I can’t be bothered to make more. Have you heard of the airport chaos this summer? So the morning swim is likely to be the highlight of the season.

Sometimes I look at my iPhone videos of David, and peruse our family photo albums, but that never lasts long. Mostly I watch the TV series du jour, chat over Zoom and WhatsApp with friends and attend to my list of things to do around home. 

Thankfully, there’s always something that needs my attention. My shabby chic apartment is beautiful but run down and things regularly fall apart. Then, for a while, I was buried under paperwork dealing with estate and succession. My foreign status often needs attention. Last week, I spent one long afternoon preparing my annual application for my visitor visa renewal, checkmarking my new marital status, “Veuve.”

So, the next few months will entail making plans, such as fate, Putin and health will allow, for many changes of scene in 2023. 

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Bonne Nouvelle Année

It’s been a slow crawl to the end of 2021 and the start of 2022. We entered a medical crisis, and that took all our energy, time and focus. Once again, we are thankful for the high quality of French health care, in which the Carte Vitale pays for everything.

Thanks to Omicron (pronounced “O-micron” which means small O in Greek, as I have recently discovered, as opposed to “O-mega” which means large O), our holidays were spent without family visitors but with a good number of friends. The festivities were low key, and fewer, but still meaningful.

Nice was decked out as usual and made one list of best cities in Europe to see Christmas lights. For the most part, I skipped them and the risky (Omicron) crowds this year. I put up one decoration at home.

Vintage angel decoration

Earlier, in November, a fellow photographer friend and I gave ourselves a gallery show, one of the events of the year for us. We each sold two prints. As we sat in the gallery day after day for two weeks, we were able to enter into good conversations about art, culture, photography and more with visitors. I was happy to see that many people didn’t realize my seascapes were taken in Nice. Perhaps I did succeed in capturing a different — my — view of the sea and city.

From the gallery show

We are likely to stay put in Nice for most of the new year, as travel is out of the picture for now. I still find it a good place to live. The glorious weather in December was one reminder, and the rollout of impressive “grands projets” to make the city ever more appealing was another. So here we stay, unless we decide chateau living is more our style.

I wish you all a splendid 2021.

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