June 27, 2011
“Over our first few days, I noticed on many of the street corner buildings contained, high above our heads, little alcoves with statues. These statues usually represented the Virgin and Child or some other saint. I’ve never seen anything like them and they piqued my curiosity until Vainess explained their significance. When the black plague struck Aix, all of the churches were closed to prevent the spread of contagion. But, after a time, the people needed to pray. The tradition of faith tended toward catholicism for most, so the statues were put up all over the city to give the citizens somewhere to pray. I think it is very unique although I believe you can pray anywhere–one of the many differences between the modern protestant and traditional catholic beliefs”
These statues were literally everywhere, all over the city.I have been to other European cities and never seen their like; I was fascinated by them from the beginning. They sit ensconced cozily in their stone alcoves, surveying the passersby as they have for years upon years. A few of them have been spruced up with fresh coats of bright, modern paint, but most of the others are weathered and softened by the centuries. Two of them I passed every day stick in my mind: one was a simple stone fisherman, no saint, but a provencal man with a simple pole and a big straw hat. The other I assume was Mary, her clothes painted vibrant red, blue, and white–the colors of the french flag, unless it is simple coincidence. While they do not hold the same significance today as they did to the people suffering during the ravages of the plague, there is something comforting about their presence.. I can imagine wandering around the city, lost, and looking up suddenly to see some saint smiling down at me.
I think we often forget how young the United States are, with our glass and chrome buildings, the peak of modern ingenuity. Even in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, there is no real sense of age. Europe is the complete opposite. These alcove guardians have seen carriages replaced by cars, have seen cafés become filled with visitors speaking hundreds of different languages, the influx and invasion of technology. They hunker in the weathered stones of the buildings, resisting change and surviving all attempts at modernization.
We have few monuments, no castles–everything is shiny and clean and new. There is beauty in the curve of a steel bridge, in the glittering glass of a skyscraper, but I find it difficult to see.
The cobblestone streets are washed clean every morning and dry in the light of the sun, but, walking along those uneven pavers, you get a sense of the years that have passed. Only in the Old Country can you tread the paths where kings, knights, and crusaders have walked. The smells of tobacco, baking bread, and the sweet warmth of the french sunlight cannot be so different now as they were then. The buildings are alive, warmed by the sun, etched by the rain, and fed by the blood, sweat, tears, and prayers of their inhabitants. These buildings have eyes, have souls, have stories all their own.You may keep your chrome, your glass, and your steel. Give me the rough stone, the uneven cobbles, and the memories.