I parked my Pink Lady by the beach and a café. I wanted to stretch my legs. Sitting on a stone a little further down was an elderly man. I couldn’t really tell his age; his face was marked by life and experience. I felt somehow drawn to him and sat down close by. His dark eyes had an expression of melancholy, his brown skin was wrinkled, and the cigarette hung out of the corner of his mouth. But I also sensed a certain pride and dignity.

“Excuse me,” I asked, “Are you from here?”

It took a while for him to react. It seemed he was not used to being approached by strangers. Especially, youngish people like me.

“Yes,” he slowly replied, expecting me to ask a typical tourist question, like where the toilets are or where I could get a good meal for very little money.

He stared back, waiting for me to continue.

“So, you are a local?”

“Ouay”, he replied.

We fell silent again, staring out into the distance.

“Beautiful area”, I said, “and very peaceful.”

“It’s alright. It’s home.”, he replied.

The silence continued.

“Sometimes, the peace is interrupted”, he said.

This time, I decided to remain silent for a long time.

“Do you have time for a coffee?”

I wasn’t expecting a “I have a meeting to dash off to”.

More silence.

“Well, you have the coffee, I can drink a pastis,” was his reply after seemingly endless time.

Behind us was a bar. A shady spot, behind two large trees. The building was low and seemed like the extension of somebody’s house. There was a curious assortment of tables and chairs, nothing really matched. A string of lightbulbs hung from a cord. A few people were sitting, having a coffee or a drink to avoid the heat. It exuded a terrific, “pirate, smugglers place, seafaring, straw huts” atmosphere. I immediately felt at home here.

“Salut, Antoine,” said the Patron. “Ooh, you found a new girl?”

To provoke him, I slipped my arm into Antoine’s and replied, “or, perhaps, I found a new man?” “Oh, you mean your grandfather, Mademoiselle,” he replied.

“Well, perhaps.”

Even Antoine couldn’t resist a chuckle. The atmosphere was instantly relaxed.

“Do you have a quiet table somewhere?” I asked.

“Sure, just where you love birds can stare into each other’s eyes”, the Patron replied.

After a while, the Patron brought our drinks.

We toasted, “Chin chin, mon amour.” I said, making sure Patron would hear me.

“Tell me,” I softened my voice, “you seemed a little nostalgic by the beach.”

“Well,” he replied, “I’m not getting any younger and soon this place will be chaos with tourists when we celebrate the pilgrimage.”

I gently touched his arm, and said, “Tell me about it.”

Antoine – full of pride, nostalgia, continued, “It’s not the same any more. Sara is our patron Saint. When I was much younger, the pilgrimage was more devout. People respected the religion and the sense of the feast.”

He paused.

“In previous years, we started in the church. During the morning mass, we lowered the caskets that contained the relics from the upper part of the chapel, and everybody sang in celebration. “Then”, he paused again and slowly said, “we Gypsies carried the statue of Saint Sara, standing on a boat, to the sea. We wanted to welcome the Holy Marys Jacobé and Salomé. We had „les gardians” on horseback, the “Arlesiennes” wearing their beautiful festive costumes with lace and decorative headdresses, accompanying us.

Our Bishop stood on a traditional fishing boat and blessed the sea, the country, the pilgrims and of course,” he paused one more time, “us Gypsies. Then we walked back to the church, with music, and the ringing of the bells. Then in the afternoon, we had another mass in which the caskets were returned to the upper part of the chapel until the next year. Candles were lit, we said our prayers and gave our offers. In the evening, we gathered in our families and had a fiesta.”

“And today?“, I asked, imagining the scene.

“Ah,” sighed Antoine, “Today it is a three-day festival. Tourists come from all over the world. It’s not the same anymore!“

Patron came to the table, “But it’s good for business.” He offered lunch and I, for one thing, wasn’t going to miss it.

“What’s the plat?”, I asked.

“Gardiane de Taureau,” he answered. Then he proceeded to describe, hands and feet, how he had prepared it.

“It’s a bull stew, typical for the Camargue. Yesterday, I spent a long time (his arms extended accordingly), cutting the bull meat into cubes. I roughly chopped the onions (oh merde, they made me cry!!) and then I covered it all with red wine. But, mademoiselle, of course, I had to drink a glass or two to convince me of the quality). Next I added vinegar, thyme, and a bay leaf, (You know you have to break it to let the aroma out, he confided in me.) Then some orange peel. I left it to marinade overnight. And then, I got up extra early this morning. I had to drain the meat and then fry it in olive oil (provençal bien sûr).”

Then he held his index finger to his nose, “Mademoiselle, I will share a secret with you… you must deglaze the pan with the hot marinade once it has been strained.”

He waved his finger in the air, to add to the sense of drama, because, then, he leant towards me and whispered in my ear, “The cooked juices will give the gardiane an incomparable taste.”

I could see, out of the corner of my eye, that Antoine had seen this piece of theatre before.

“Then I let it simmer for 2 ½ to 3 hours.“

“Don’t forget to serve the Camargue rice”, said Antoine.

Patron rolled his eyes, “Mais ouay. What do you think I am? An Amateur?”

I couldn’t resist.

Antoine melted with the food. He seemed much younger now, charming with wonderful old-fashioned courtesy. It was a pleasure to spend time with him and hear his tales of yesteryear.

But I had to continue. We parted company. I promised to return on my way back to Brida after my trip to have lunch with him and to savour the spirit of his generation, the stories of his childhood.

I don’t have one of these modern “portables” he said. But Patron will find me.

Getting into the Pink Lady, I blew him a kiss, “à bientôt.”

He waved and headed back to the bar for a drink.

The story is set in the following places:

Antoine’s second homeClick Here
Saintes Maries de la Mer Tourist InformationClick Here

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