World Travels with Meg Pier

Stop 2: A French Village


On a misty morning last summer, in a French village whose motto is "Sempre endavant, mai morirem" or “Always forward, we'll never die,” I found myself in an ancient cemetery.

In an unusual burst of early morning ambition, I had decided to go for a walk after waking up just before daybreak. A block or two from my hotel, I wandered into an alabaster acre packed with miniature marble mausoleums shoulder to shoulder, and rows of ivory crosses that resembled outstretched arms touching fingertips. In the midst of this pale sacred space, the air damp with heavy fog, a black cat scampered across the chalky gravel. Startled, I actually shrieked and jumped several inches in the air. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I bolted through the elaborately scrolled wrought-iron gates.

Reaching the main street and recovering from my palpitations on a bench, I segued from spooked to crestfallen.

Collioure is shaped like the arc of a palette and encircles a poetic port, its perimeter dripping with delicious pastels. Matisse is reported to have said "No sky in all France is more blue than that of Collioure." He and his fellow painters Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali had been drawn to the quality of light here, and like them, I sought to capture the town’s rich shades, albeit with my camera rather than a paintbrush. When I had arrived the prior evening, even at dusk I could see the promise of lush hues hidden in the shadows of the tropical foliage, cubist architecture and picturesque harbor.

My sunny expectations were now dissolving. With the sky hazy and thick with humidity, the day I had envisioned for myself seemed destined to be a washout. Disheartened, I dragged myself off the bench and began walking toward the water, navigating through the narrow, maze-like streets, empty at this early hour. Ruminating as I rambled, my pace quickened with my temper. I fumed that I had driven the better part of a day in the height of Europe’s summer holiday season, only to have my photography party spoiled by the certain rain.

With each step my disappointment deepened and then made a hard turn down the emotional dead end that is resentment and anger. Taking long, purposeful strides propelled by frustration, practically at a run and breathing heavily, I turned a corner and shot out from a cobblestoned alley. The scene in front of me stopped me short.

Beyond the deserted plaza and small sandy beach was a study in shades of peach, tangerine, and apricot. Against the backdrop of a glowing sky layered with mist lay the shimmering waters of the Mediterranean, the color of ginger tea. The long curled arm of ancient defensive bastions encircling the harbor was a shade of deep rosy tan. Standing on a paddle board, a lone figure using a single oar skimmed along the surface, heading out to sea. Watching him, with the lapping waves the only sound, my anger sputtered out like a snuffed candle. With each stroke of his oar, the sun rose higher above the horizon line, its rays wringing out the fog.

Rustlings along the perimeter of the harbor awakened me from the brief and unexpected spell of enchantment. An elderly man in bathing trunks, towel thrown over his shoulder, appeared on my right, walking down to the beach. A few feet from me, a father and son with fishing poles emerged from the warren of densely-packed buildings. Far to the left, a trio of teenage boys dove from the sea wall, the splash followed by their wet heads surfacing seconds later, ringed by ripples in the water.

I moved along the waterfront and nodded at the other early risers: a matron stood with hands on hip peering at the church bulletin posted outside its open door, out of which another black cat sauntered. A man paused to take in the view, three fresh baguettes under his arm. Looking up, I saw a naked toddler wander out on to a second-story balcony, plop down on her behind and stare back at me.

Taking my pick of the network of intersecting lanes that wound their way up the hillside, I delighted in discovering one charming little detail after another. Someone had adorned the surface of an ancient shutter with tiny hearts, sketched in chalk in a tic-tac-toe pattern. A statue of a Madonna and child nestled in a niche in an old wall. Outside a cubbyhole storefront was an artful display of overlapping linens and quilts in varying patterns, in the center of which hung a heart-shaped cache, sweetly stitched with the word "Amitie," or “friendship.”

I made a slow climb up the steep, crooked streets, fronted with houses in Crayola colors and wreathed in fragrant bougainvillea. At Collioure’s heights, I looked out over terra cotta rooftops and enjoyed the same azure expanse that Matisse had so prized.

Collioure illustrated for me a lesson I seem to need to learn and re-learn. Life is not black and white, or all or nothing; it is the multi-hued shadings and contrasts that give a day its texture and meaning. Nothing is static, and any given situation can be seen differently, given a little time and some perspective.

Progress for me has been recognizing that expectations can often cloud my view. Today, I ascribe to the battle cry of Collioure’s residents; it’s OK if achieving the big picture sometimes involves a bit of an uphill slog for me, as long as I am moving forward. At least now I know I will eventually see clear skies.

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