“To be empty, to surrender, to be lived by the Tao
—this isn’t some lofty goal that can only be attained
after years of spiritual practice. When you really go inside
yourself, for the love of truth and question even one stressful
concept, the mind becomes a little saner, a little more open.
And you begin to see that there is no objective world out there.
It’s all projected. You’ve been living in your STORY of the world.”
Eleven o’clock Saturday morning, September 14th, the bells in the ancient church in Salies de Bearn go wild with joy. For fifteen minutes, without stopping, they proclaim that the world is wonderful and festive and ready to enjoy the Fête du Sel, the Celebration of the Salt, in the town where salt has been a way of life for centuries. That means that the traditional Mass sung in Bearnaise (the ancient language spoken by the people of the Bearn which is like a mixture of French, Spanish and something totally unknown) has finished and the faithful will be exiting the church and joining the already festive crowds in the street.
According to the legend, some hunters were chasing a wounded boar but couldn’t find him. A few days later they returned and came across the dead boar who had fallen into a swamp and become encrusted in salt. Thus the source of the salt was discovered and began being exploited over 500 years ago, and the town of Salies grew up around the Source (which today is under the paved over Place de Bayaa).
No sooner have the bells begun to chime, ringing out over the countryside, than youth bands -dressed in the traditional white with light blue trimmings- begin to play the Bearnaise march for the spectators that have been arriving in waves since nine a.m. this morning.
We’re having a late summer. The sun is already beating down, scorching the skin; the sky is blue and nary a breeze rises to cool the perspiration that begins to form. It is going to be hot, but the Fête does not risk being rained out, which is something to say for a year that has been the wettest in the last half a century.
Since yesterday, the streets and alleyways that wind their way to the Place de Bayaa (the central plaza, where the original source of the salt was) are filled with artisans hawking their ware.
Tables offering up spices and local pottery, knit goods and copper kitchenware, wooden scuptures and fancy wire jewelry, homemade bakery and typical berets, foie gras and fruit flavored nougat, barrels cut for use as side tables or flower potts and every shape and smell of cheese imaginable, household decorations and knives for everything from hunting to use in the kitchen line each and every passageway.
And people, people that have walked, or bussed, or biked or driven in to be part of the Fête, mill around stopping here and there, buying something or not, listening to the bands, drinking a morning beer, having a breakfast of raw oysters and “frites” (the inevitable french fries) or simply standing on a corner, leaning against a wall, trying -as I am- to take it all in.
I stand in a shower of sunlight, stopped in my tracks by the joy of the bells and the youthful cheer of the band. I can hardly breathe as gratitude wells up in my chest and bursts forth as tears that I don’t try to wipe away. How could life ever be sweeter? And I remember a phrase of Byron Katie: “Just when you think it can’t get any better, it does”. Oh yes, I can vouch for that.
Salomé tugs at her leash, leaning in the direction she knows to be home. Poor thing; she doesn’t like parties of any kind and a “fête” is the worst kind from her small and vulnerable viewpoint. So many feet to step on her, so much noise to wound her delicate canine ears… nothing could make it worth while, not even the variety of new doggie smells.
So we walk home, wending our way between people and stalls, out of the noise, past the meters long tables in the Bayaa being set for 800 people and then some, past the Grignotine where I will lunch with a group of friends later in the day, up the narrow passageway that leads to the parking lot of the Place de Temple and down the avenue to our house.
Later, after Salomé has been fed and informed that I am leaving and she should take care of the house while I’m gone (upon hearing this she lowers her ears, turns around and struts off in a dignified but offended manner that tells me she is anything but pleased), I return to the merriment which has grown into a humongous crowd of people of all ages milling about the Bayaa (the main plaza) and adjacent streets to the brass and percussion instruments of half a dozen bands all playing at once in different corners.
A human circle has formed in the center around a group doing one of the traditional dances. I skirt around them and make my progress going back and forth looking for tiny spaces in which to advance between the bodies. Most people have a beer or a glass of wine in their hand and are merrily talking away to someone else who also holds a drink.
In a while, I will meet up with a group of friends, half English, half French, for lunch. We will be thirteen, a number that includes two English couples, two French couples and two gay couples (one masculine and one feminine both duly married now that France passed the law allowing gay couples to marry) and me, the thirteenth which, in my book, is good luck (my parents married on the 13th, my husband was born on a 13th and so was my daughter).
Dozens of youngsters of both sexes, guided by master chefs, hurriedly prepare the meals of their guests in the makeshift outdoor kitchen. The serving of three courses to so many hundreds will go slowly, of that there is no doubt, but today no one is in a hurry. With the music and the wine and the food which will arrive -probably later than sooner- the voices will become louder and louder; one will have to shout to be heard. There will be singing, and even dancing on the chairs before the meal is done. Ohhh, it will be merry.
And when the last piece of cake has been eaten and the last glass of wine emptied and the final cup of coffee consumed people will begin to leave. Slowly the long tables will be emptied as the guests wander slowly out of the Bayaa and towards the surrounding streets. There, looking for shade from the afternoon sun, they’ll lean against a wall and chat while they wait for the parade of floats that circles through the streets of Salies showing off the imagination and creativity of the surrounding towns. Each float is pulled by a tractor from a farm nearby the town; each float has chosen a theme and been adorned (tractor and all) in accordance, with all its occupants dressed in the motive of the theme. This year there will be floats representing the Cannes Film Festival, a festive town wedding party and a night out in Paris under the Eiffel Tower. The children that accompany their parents on the float are in charge of showering everyone with confetti as the procession progresses down the street in front of the standing audience.
Absolutely everyone will come out to see the floats; they are considered the most important regional festivity of the year and a tremendous amount of planning and money goes into creating the best and most ingenious display.
The floats take, usually, three to four hours to go around the whole town, so it will be dusk before it is over. I will not stay for all because Salomé is home alone and I will be tired from having celebrated all day long.
It will have been a good day, of that I am sure, and by tomorrow the town will have been swept clean of everything but the confetti which will continue to give testimony that Salies once more celebrated the salt of its soul.