So off we went. Dora Maar fellows Khaled Alkhamissi, Rebecca Chace, and Stacey D’Erasmo drove down to the Camargue, to the town of Saintes Maries de la Mer for the annual Pèlerinage des Gitans aux Saintes Maries de la Mer on May 24. This is the day when the Roma carry the black virgin, Saint Sara, saint of travelers, to the sea. Saintes Maries is the home of three saints—Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome, and Mary Jacoby—who, according to legend, sailed there after the Crucifixion. Saint Sara, according to some legends, is the one who welcomed them.
On the way to the pèlerinage, without enough gas to get either to the Camargue or back to the Dora Maar House, we discovered, to our surprise, that there was no gas that day—anywhere in France. Gas station after gas station was empty and closed. An open gas station had a line of cars a kilometer long. Gas nowhere in France? Khaled, our fluent fellow who was wonderfully willing to ask passersby for directions and information, reported that there was “un catastrophe,” according to one frustrated local merchant. It was a grève, a strike, at the refineries.
What to do? We had lunch in Arles, considering our options. We didn’t really have any options. We had enough gas to get back to Avignon, so we decided to drive there and hope that someone could come fetch us. We got back in the car and set out. But then, astonishingly, a gas station—open, full of gas, no long line of cars waiting—appeared. With many thanks to Saint Sara, saint of travelers indeed, we filled the tank and drove on. We joined the growing crowd at the Church of Saintes Maries de la Mer—Roma on pilgrimage, families from the town, photographers from all over the world, priests on their way into the church, the men carrying various flags and offerings, the line of men on the white horses native to the Camargue who would accompany Saint Sara to the sea, children, outsiders like ourselves, seekers from everywhere. Everyone pushed. Everyone shoved. One woman actually got a chair through and put her very elderly mother in it, in prime viewing position. Local officials yelled, “Reculez-vous!” (“Back up!”) but hardly anyone did.
Finally, the shrine descended from the roof of the church, lowered inch by inch, bedecked in flowers and candles. Then the plaster statue of the saint herself emerged from the church, muffled in robes and crown, borne on a litter and with one small rider, a girl who had received her first Communion that week, on the back. We fell in with the pèlerinage, following the saint through the streets, dodging piles of horse manure—sometimes walking with priests, sometimes with tourists, and sometimes with people being half-carried in their ecstasy, many barefoot for the pilgrimage—all the way to the sea. More crowds waited along the shoreline, filling every dune. Photographers stood waist deep in the surf, waiting for the saint’s arrival. The white horses and their riders plunged into the sea up to the stirrups, followed by many of the pilgrims, and then, at last, Saint Sara herself, held aloft by her bearers.
Joy everywhere. Salt water on all the lenses. Vivre Saint Sara.