jeudi 21 novembre 2013

Granada, Camargue, New Mexico: Coming Full Circle at a Crossroads.

Albuquerque, New Mexico, June 21st, 2013. Summer Solstice.
I left my Moorish Granada a few days ago in search of a new life, in search of myself. I am finally back here, back to this place I have always felt as mine, as home, only that it is a home I have never really lived in, at least in this lifetime, at least till now... My love story with New Mexico dates back to 1997. I was touring the United States for the first time, visiting some of the states where I knew I could catch a glimpse of languages mingling, and get a taste of Spanglish sounds. Of the seven states I saw, one spoke to my soul. As D.H. Lawrence expressed in his essay dedicated to this enchanted land, “in New Mexico, a new part of the soul wakes up suddenly.” This is exactly what I felt the first time I discovered la Nueva México

Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, July 1997.
If I were to paraphrase the rest of Lorenzo’s quote, I would say that “the moment I saw the shining, serpent-like Rio Grande river meander along the road as I drove to Taos, something stood still in my soul and I started to attend.” My heart, soul and body were in a state of perfect and peaceful communion with my surroundings which were turning into something much more powerful than a simple landscape. My intense gratitude flowed in the form of joyful tears. The cinnamon-colored boulders and the turquoise sky above, the glistening scales of the liquid snake below, and the invisible embers carried around by the summer wind as it caressed my skin, all the elements acknowledged my emotion and welcomed me in their silent circle. I was imbued with a strange certitude, that of an ancient filiation. This earth saw me as hers, and made me feel that I belonged.
The silent recognition would also be expressed through a beautiful human interaction. In Taos Pueblo, I had decided to leave the group of tourists I was supposed to follow. I was feeling more and more uncomfortable with their taking pictures of everything and everyone. I preferred to wander by myself, taking time to observe life and its slow pace around me, allowing my senses to absorb the ongoing activities as well as to capture some of the ancient whispers of the place. Three young girls were laughing as they played with the precious water of the Red Willow Creek; yellow butterflies were chasing each other in a colorful dance; three rez dogs were yawning and scratching in the shade; an old lady was baking bread in an horno that our guide had told us, tongue-in-cheek, not to mistake for a doghouse.
When I crossed the little bridge over the creek, I saw a delicate drum at the foot of a table covered by a multicolor rug full of craftsmanship artifacts awaiting their seller. When he came back, I asked the elder about his feelings towards so many visitors coming to the Pueblo. Of course, we paid a fee for using cameras or camcorders, and bought Puebloan craftsmanship, but many times, I felt, to the detriment of Taoseño privacy.  The old man looked at me in silence, for a few seconds that seemed much longer to me, and then held me in his arms as he whispered that the Great Spirit would accompany me. His name was Bobby Lujan. I never forgot him, I never saw him again and never will. Last year he entered the spirit world, before I could reconnect with him... or did I actually reconnect, through a more subtle channel of communication? 
Granada, Spain, 1999.
More than a year after my encounter with him, I had experienced a vision, as I rested on a tree trunk by the Benéjar River in Aldeire, a mountain hamlet nested in the Marquesado del Zenete. I had accompanied a friend to pay a visit to her old grandma before sitting by the creek. The words spoken by the wise woman and the situations she evoked sounded profoundly familiar to me. It was as if I was back among the old Hispano farmers of Northern New Mexico as they talked about similar acequias, mayordomos or hermandades. All of a sudden, as I leaned on the tree and relived the conversation that unfolded before my eyes, the lady’s features had turned masculine. Her wrinkled face gave way to a much browner tone, and her thick white hair had gone thinner and greyer, and it was braided in the traditional Puebloan way. As the Spanish abuela was talking, I heard the promise of “my” Taoseño elder. His face emerged from the gurgling waters; his sad but sparkling eyes looked into mine as he repeated his blessing. Then, as the river song sounded louder and the tree bark felt warmer, the face had changed again; the hair had become much shorter and it had regained its whiter-than-snow tone to frame a copper face whose mouth uttered new words in Spanish: “algún día podrás escribir” (one day you will write). Those were the words of Miguel Méndez, a Yaqui Indian, one of the most prominent Spanish-speaking Chicano writers, who also passed away. His most acclaimed novel, Peregrinos de Aztlán (Pilgrims in Aztlan), depicts life in Tijuana, on that conflictive border that weaves such an intricate fabric of crossroads creatures. In a whitewashed cave dwelling, in the heart of the Gypsy quarter of Granada, Miguel and I celebrated the end of the Chicano writers’ conference we had attended. In that flamenco bar, I had told the writer about my travel impressions during my tour of the USA, and he had seen my creative future… We were in a sacred place, precisely called el Sacromonte, sacred mount, land of the Gypsies. 

Sacromonte cave. Photo: N. Bléser
Lorca's portrait. Sacromonte cave. Photo: N. Bléser

 There, in old caves dug in holy grounds, lie dormant many of my most precious memories; there breathe my heart and soul, pounding in unison with the telluric current of the Andalusian land so prone to earthquakes, both physical and emotional.
Albuquerque, New Mexico, June 2013.
Here I am now, back in New Mexico, asking for the Great Spirit’s guidance as I plan to attend a travel writing workshop in Taos. Miguel and Bobby must be smiling from their new abode in the sky as they see me trying to follow the path drawn in their prophecies. I am now sitting on the porch of an adobe house in an Albuquerque neighborhood, reconnecting with this land and the beings who inhabit it: those made of flesh and blood, those whose ethereal spirit abides in the shadows of origins, those who whisper their names in the night breeze, and those whose wrinkles draw their furrows in the brown, dry flesh of la madre tierra nuevomexicana. Under a gentle moon rising among a flock of feathery clouds, the flickering flame of a purple candle casts its shadow on the adobe walls, wrapping them in the same hues as the warm aura of the Sandías. Now I fully understand why the conquistadors named the mountain after the refreshing fruit. As the setting sun blesses the mountain slopes with its last rays, the huge slice of rocky watermelon plays hide and seek with my street’s trees.
Mountains have a unique way of speaking to the traveler’s soul. They actually choose who they want to welcome at their feet, luring us humans into believing that we are in control of where we settle down. Be it the Sandías or Taos Mountain, the seven hills of Granada’s Sacromonte or Sierra Nevada, all have, at one time, let me know that I could call them home. Maybe this particular relationship between mountain and earth-wanderer explains why one of the most well-known pieces of travel writing is Petrarch’s Ascent of Mount Ventoux, in which his physical ascension echoes the spiritual one. The Provençal name of the mount means “windy”, an allusion to the fierce mistral that often sweeps the region.
Camargue, France, May 2013.
On the highway from Barcelona to Arles, the gusty winds were giving me a hard time while I tried to keep the car steady. My hands ached from holding the wheel too tight. I stopped for a while to rest, and enjoy the sight of the Mediterranean Sea. The greeting committee set up by Mister Mistral gave me an even stronger feeling of liberty, as I stood there, letting the wild wind play in my loose hair, watching the blurred demarcating line between water and sky. I was now very close to the capital of la Camargue, land of bulls, feral horses, flamingos and Gypsies.
In the outskirts of town, a sign reminded me that Verviers, my Belgian hometown, is twin city with Arles. Daughter of the town whose motto is Vert et Vieux (green and old), I was now looking for a B&B called Campagne Pré Vert (green meadow countryside). The bucolic search made me run into a strange sight. Was I experiencing another vision, as when I sat by the Benéjar River so many years ago? In fact no, I was actually facing a totem pole and two bronze buffalos, the “exotic” decoration of a Buffalo Grill restaurant.
Restaurant: Buffalo Grill, Arles. Photo: N. Bléser

 I couldn’t help laughing. I was here, in Southern France partly because of Buffalo Bill’s gloves and a Lakota warrior’s regalia. In 1906, leaning from the rail of a ship anchored in Antwerp harbor, Belgium, Jacob White Eyes, who had toured Europe as a member of the Wild West Show, had thrown his precious belongings to le marquis de Baroncelli. The French nobleman had come to say goodbye to his friend who was about to sail away on the Big Water… The marquis had taken his present back south, where he would start writing about his new understanding of how to walk the red road, from the bottom of his conquered “cœur rouge” (red heart).
Sitting in the car looking at the fake totem pole, I wondered about Europeans’ understanding of Native American cultural symbols. These often end up tangled in a huge catch-all, mixed with cowboy attires, in old movie sets turned into theme parks such as our Spanish “Mini Hollywood”, an hour away from home, in the heart of the Tabernas desert in Almeria. As they spend the day in this strange territory, tourists seek to relive mythical scenes from their favorite Spaghetti westerns, and dream of regaining their childhood wonderment while they immerse themselves into the Wild West experience tailored by moviemakers of the 20th century. 
Commercial pics at Mini Hollywood.

The whole family can spend the day dressing up, eating and drinking in the town saloons, watching the reenactments of a bank robbery with a few dead stuntmen at every session to add to the excitement, and of course visiting the zoo for a complete 'exotic' experience… 
"Mini Hollywood". Photo: N. Bléser
 The Wild West Show of the early 1900s actually launched a concept whose name still gives me goose bumps. If in today’s Almeria one can see fake cowboys and Indians together with real caged animals, in yesterday’s Germany, different circus directors had started to ask for “real Indians”, mainly Lakota people from the Pine Ridge reservation, to come to German territory where they would be on display, for other human beings to stare at them in awe. Yes, human zoos were a trend at the beginning of the 20th century, during the childhood of the people who would later build the Nazi concentration camps…  In 2013, here am I in Camargue, as a result of my own fascination for remnants of Lakota presence in Southern France.  How should I honestly define my particular quest for evanescent ghosts of the Plains Indians who once wandered in Camargue? 
Lost in my thoughts, I let their sinuous path instinctively lead me to la Campagne Pré Vert. As the wrought iron gate slowly opened, I drove on a gravel alley lined with olive trees, cypresses and oleanders. Under the shade of a cherry tree, the owners of the B&B had turned an old horse-drawn wagon into a cozy studio. 
La Campagne Pré Vert. Photo: N. Bléser

This was my second sign, a wink from the Gypsy world in search of which I had come here too… Every year, les Gens du Voyage -“traveling people”, the politically correct name of itinerant Gypsies in France- gather at les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, south of Arles. Coming from all over Europe, they take part in a huge pilgrimage to pay a tribute to their Patron Saint. The story goes that Sara, the dark-skinned saint, welcomed members of the family of Christ who had been expelled from Palestine and cast adrift in a boat with no oars or sail. This is the version favored by the Gypsies, although other stories portray Sara as the Egyptian servant of the three saint Marys (Magdalene, Salome and Jacobe). After their fragile skiff miraculously reached the shores of the Mediterranean in the Rhone Delta, they started spreading the Christian faith in Provence.
I was impatient to experience the pilgrimage, but before meeting Sara, I had time to take a mini road trip to rediscover the region. In Fontvieille, I parked between a traditional bistrot and a tiny town hall slumbering at the shade of a plane tree. The tree held a red and yellow banner which advertised a bull race sponsored by a Belgian beer brand… This new allusion to my native country made me remember my first time here, on an organized tour that my parents had booked from Belgium so that the three of us could meet in an intermediate location between Spain and Belgium to celebrate a Provençal Christmas. At that precise moment, a bus owned by the same tour operator, from my same hometown, was crossing the square. As I saw the “car Léonard” drive by the bakery “Les Délices de Daudet”, I swear I could almost recognize my parents and me inside the bus, as we watched the streets go by while our guide recited his well-learned lesson, spewing dates and data without passion… The memory of my inherent frustration at having to adapt to a plan scheduled by others helped me redefine my true wandering self: I was a fierce adept of independent traveling, anything but gregarious. At the precise moment of the vehicle’s appearance, I felt a whirl of emotions: incredulity at seeing my past coming to life, a brief nostalgia for my hometown and family, satisfaction for my present lifestyle, and great excitement for the freedom I enjoyed. It was as if a gigantic hand had put the bus there to make me look into the mirror of time and embrace my nomadic nature. I was amazed by such a coincidence, or “winks of destiny” as I prefer to call such events.
As Théophile Gautier would put it, “Le hasard, c'est peut-être le pseudonyme de Dieu quand il ne veut pas signer” (maybe coincidences are God’s pseudonym when He doesn’t want to sign). A small sign in a narrow street of downtown Granada recalls the French writer’s name, as a tribute to his writings about Spain, his love for Granada and the Alhambra. Without his words and those of other romantic travelers from Europe and America, maybe the Alhambra would have been lost to future generations. Sometimes, it seems that myths, while altering or embellishing reality, are also capable of preserving it. Their way of magnifying reality is capable of transcending physical obstacles to defeat the ravages of time… I had come to Fontvieille to visit another mythical building, much tinier than the Moorish castle, but worth its weight in gold for French literature lovers: the windmill from which Alphonse Daudet supposedly wrote his “Letters” that gave a unique taste of Provence to thousands of readers. What a disappointment, though… The pungent sulfur smell that permeated the empty parking lot was the prelude to a situation worthy of a Shakespearean quote. Something was indeed rotten in the kingdom of Daudet… Except for the stench, everything was as I remembered it: the peaceful olive trees, the small silhouette of the windmill behind the trees, its fragile wings tied to the ground to prevent them from rotating and breaking, the wrought-iron bull desperately trying to charge at the imaginary giant from his old weathervane, and the stone sign with Daudet’s words: “Ce coin de roche qui m’était une patrie et dont on retrouve la trace -êtres ou endroits- dans presque tous mes livres” (This rocky spot, that I cherish as a homeland, and whose essence -living beings or places- permeates almost all my books). 

Daudet's windmill. Photo: N. Bléser

Some people say Daudet never wrote his short stories from the windmill but from his Parisian apartment instead. Does it really matter? The windmill still stands there because of what it came to mean. It surpasses time and keeps the writer and his stories alive, and invites us to listen to the secrets held by these old stones… On the day of my visit, sadly enough, a newspaper article taped to the wooden door explained that this witness of history (or myth) was closed to visitors because of a quarrel between the mayor of Fontvieille and the owner of the windmill. I sadly looked at the minuscule window above the door, from where I had once waved at my dad’s camera, barely breathing as I leaned from that extremely narrow space. Echoes of my conversation with the owner of the windmill were rising to the surface of my memory’s bottomless pit. As he explained the details of an illustrated map of the region, the man spoke, in his delightful southern accent, about olive oil, Mediterranean wine, fragrant lavender, bullfighting, Manitas de Plata, the semi-God flamenco guitar player, pink flamingos, white horses and black bulls embracing the orange sunsets of his beloved Camargue. He was imbued with a passion that our Belgian tourist guide would never even have dreamed of conveying... As I told him about the picture of the female bullfighter Marie-Sara, that I had bought in Nîmes, the man had exclaimed “Ah! Mais ça n’a rien à voir avec chez nous, c’est de l’autre côté du Rhône!” which roughly means that the city (not even an hour-drive away) was a foreign space, another universe across the Rhone River… I smiled at his vehemence, which I did not fully understand, although it made me somehow long for that kind of fierce affection for one’s native land… Was it the hidden purpose of my travels? To find a place on earth with which I would madly fall in love?
For now, this trip to Camargue would enable me to live a childhood dream built upon images that were very similar to the faded drawings that decorated the old map in the closed windmill. These elements would finally come to life, to my life in Li Santo, Les SaintesHere I was, together with thousands of Gypsies who had parked their huge trailers along the shores of the Mediterranean. 

Interview with the Spanish Television (Photo: S. Bishop)

The town was an explosion of colors and sounds. Fair-skinned little girls clad in the typical Andalusian dress were dancing flamenco to the sound of a Balkan Gypsy band. Musicians who played a rumba flamenca had invited a beautiful Punjabi woman to join them in the human flow of pilgrims. Her husband reluctantly let her twirl round to the Spanish rhythms. Her movements and the shimmering colors of her broad red and green skirt took us all in a vortex-like voyage to the Indian birthplace of Gypsies. Genes definitely have a better memory than ours, or than history textbooks... Among Flamenco and Gypsy rhythms and Catholic chants sung by nuns and pilgrims, we were following the Gardians; these French cowboys proudly carried the Camargue trident as they rode their white horses to accompany Sara to bless the waters of the Mediterranean…  The salty water of the cold waves echoed the tears I had shed in Sara’s crypt. I was very moved and eager to experience my first encounter with her. Deeply immersed in my thoughts and moved by the intensity of the moment, I had declined buying a religious medallion from a woman whose black hair was covered by a red scarf. She stood by the entrance of the crypt in a long green skirt decorated with tiny mirrors. When I declined her invitation to buy the piece of jewelry, she bitterly answered “Faut pas avoir peur de la Gitane…” (You needn’t be afraid of the Gypsy woman). Why would she turn my simple lack of interest into a huge wall separating us? I looked back at her sadly. She had already decided what I was supposed to feel or think, assuming I had to be afraid of her since I was a Paya or Gadji, a non-Gypsy. Otherness and its mental constructions at its “best”...
When I walked down the narrow staircase to finally face Sara Kali, the Black Sara, all sadness was gone. This small statue of a crowned, brown, gown-covered woman spoke to my heart. Like all the pilgrims standing in line before me, I had felt the urge to touch her numerous layers of dresses, to feel her face, and my tears were as warm as the wax dripping from the hundreds of candles burning in the crypt.
Saint Sarah's crypt, Saintes Maries de la Mer. Photo: N. Bléser
Author with St Sara. Photo: O. Calleriza
  I no longer knew where I was; Les Saintes, Marseille, Granada, Taos Pueblo? In all those places, different virgins clad in candlelight and devotion had made me feel the power of introspection, what others call prayer. Although I am not a believer in the Catholic sense of the word, I had experienced the magic of communion between my true self and the ineffable spirit that inhabits all things. There and then, I knew that I was unveiling new parts of my soul, and I was grateful for that.  
On the last morning of this trip, as on every single day since I had been in France, an eagle soared high in the sky, showing me the way to a place where Gypsy souls and Indian hearts had come together. Magpies were also to be seen on my way to le mas du Simbèu. I smiled, because these birds were the signs that I had been looking for, the acknowledgement of two people who had unconsciously convinced me to come to that place. I had seen a documentary about Jacob White Eye’s regalia that slept somewhere in an old closet of a Camargue mas. It fascinated me. The first person who appeared in the documentary, Wamblee La Tanka, whose name means Little Big Eagle in the Lakota language, was the descendant of Nelly Fast Horse, a Lakota woman who had come with the Wild West Show and had decided to stay in France to marry a man from Normandy. Wamblee’s story had inspired James Welsh to write his heartfelt novel “The Heartsong of Charging Elk”, about a Lakota member of the show lost in Marseille who bitterly experienced otherness, homesickness and loneliness. The second interviewee, Lance White Magpie, was a friend of Little Big Eagle; he had once come from the Pine Ridge Reservation to learn more about the warrior’s regalia and attend the annual tribute to le Marquis de Baroncelli at the mas du Simbeu. The marquis had welcomed his people here, more than a hundred years ago, and together with Gardians, Gypsies and Arlésiennes, Lance had saluted the noble Frenchman’s hospitality, and compared the history of Indians with that of Gypsies. His words were now echoing other intercultural and multilingual speeches. I tried to integrate their messages as my eyes captured the beautiful patchwork of human diversity. A little Gadji held a teddy bear in her arms as she looked at a Gypsy girl of about the same age; a sea of laces and ribbons drew rainbow waves among the crowd of Arlésiennes every time they nodded at speeches in French, Provençal or Romani; a red wheel, reminder of old horse-drawn wagons, joyfully floated on the  green and blue lagoon  of the Gypsy flag; the white Camargue horses, still panting from their work during the branding of anoubles (yearling bulls), stoically waited to gallop across the streets of Les Saintes to take the bulls from the meadows to the bullring, during the abrivado and bandido; my friend Olivier, so worthy of his peaceful name, proudly carried his homemade bread decorated with la Croix Camarguaise, an emblem of faith, peace and sharing designed by le Marquis.
Croix de Camargue. Entering Les Saintes. Photo: N. Bléser
When I finally saw the regalia in « l’armoire du Mas du Simbèu », time stood still. The magnificently beaded buckskin cloak and the worn-out eagle feathers of the headdress started to tell their own story, adding vivid details to Pierre Aubanel’s account. As le marquis’ grandson explained how his grandfather had received it from his Lakota friend, he had ceased to be Pierre. He had become Zintkala Ohitika, “the bird that flies with strength and determination”. He had received his Lakota name during a ceremony held by Tashunka Kokipapi, a traditional elder who had come in 2006 to pay tribute to the marquis’ friendship with his ancestors. Exactly one hundred years before that, the marquis himself had also been adopted into the tribe by his Lakota family, to become Zintkala Waste, “the faithful bird”. As I listened to him, I stared at the pink flamingo feather that Pierre Aubanel wore on the brim of his hat. 
Pierre Aubanel's flamingo feather. Photo: N. Bléser
I saw it as an invitation to take my metaphorical quill to tell part of the story of this encounter that transcended time and space.
As I drove south, back to Spain, I glanced one last time at the Camargue skies, hoping to say goodbye to “my” faithful eagle. The bird was there, although instead of real wings and feathers, a cloud in the shape of an eagle was flying high above… 
An eagle in the sky. Photo: N. Bléser

I swear I heard it say “un jour tu pourras écrire” (one day you will write), as I recalled the saying “Partir, c’est mourir un peu” (to leave is to die a little). The cloud bird told me that, sometimes, we need to symbolically die to come full circle with ourselves.
New Mexico, July 21st, 2013. 
Tonight I am going back to Albuquerque after a week spent in Taos, at the Writers’ Summer Conference. I have learned writing skills and enjoyed the Taoseño slow pace of life in a casita hidden at the end of a quiet road lost in a sagebrush sea along the acequia madre. I have searched for Bobby’s grave in Taos Pueblo’s old cemetery, but I could not spot his tomb. Did it really matter? I felt his presence there, watching over me. Among the crosses at the foot of the crumbled bell tower of the old church, I recognized the Spanish names that I had already noticed in 1997: the same Lujans and Romeros also seemed to recognize me and accept my presence there among them.
Bobby, Miguel, Lorenzo, I have tried my best to honor your prophecies and legacy. Now, as I am leaving Taos, the huge tar snake of the NM 68 takes me along the line of motels, gas stations and square-shaped stores. They remind me of those never-ending merchandise trains that make you wonder if you are still moving when trying to keep pace with them as you drive. I am driving back south, back to the big city, although I wish I could stay longer among the deep sagebrush sea. The crazy downpour over the town of Alcalde makes it impossible to catch sight of the statue of el conquistador Don Juan de Oñate. Is it a sign of Spain fading away in my reality? The sky is black and then white, no bird to tell me about my destiny, only wild lightning bolts that throw electric snakes on the earth. For a second I recognize Avanyu, the Puebloan guardian of water, depicted as a winged or Plumed Serpent. Here is my sign! This is Lorenzo winking at me as he reminds me of his emblem on the door of the old ranch he occupied outside Taos: his phoenix that I had mistaken for the Spanish double-headed eagle. To leave is to die a little, but writers and travelers know how to be reborn of time’s ashes as they blow on memories to reveal secrets kept in the sacred circles of our souls…
To die, to sleep; perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub […]
the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
(Shakespeare, Hamlet)

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