by cheri sabraw
Rarely in life do you stumble upon something so evocative that it stops your forward motion and plunges you into thought. Several years ago, in a tiny cemetery in southern France, I experienced such an event.
We had driven from Aix-en-Provence to Nice, on the French Riviera. Because we had not figured out ( American ingenuity?) how to pay the fee on French toll roads, an ignorance resulting in a stressful and embarrassing rush-hour log-jam of Citroens and Renaults, their owners blowing their horns and oui, feverishly shoving our credit cards in and out of the French-speaking toll-taking machine, we had purposely chosen a route to Nice without one toll road. As might be expected,this route, over French hill and dale, took us eight hours to drive. We arrived in Nice not so nice.
We finally located our hotel in the Alps Maritime medieval town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence. In order to appreciate the delicacy with which we had to enter this walled city with its ramparts, I must post a little picture here.
Our small hotel was within this town. We had to bend our rear-view mirrors into the sides of the car to avoid tearing them off.
Dinner time was approaching; we were anxious to unpack, have a cocktail, and eat.
The hotel did not disappoint.
The dinner did.
I had forgotten to make dinner reservations in the hotel dining room which accommodated ten tables.
At the point of check in, the conversation went like this:
“Oh yes, and we would like to eat here tonight, S’il vous plait, ” I said sweetly.
“Oh sorry, Madame, but the entire dining room is reserved tonight, you know, because celebrities are in town for the Montecarlo Grand Prix, so tomorrow night works for you, ok?” she said.
” Really? Who has reserved the tables? Could you ask them if the Sabraws could join them?” I pleaded eloquently.
She laughed and blew air out of her heart-shaped mouth, demurely, ” I am afraid that will not be possible, you see Monsieur Di Capprio is staying on the property tonight. ”
I did not blink nor show any sign of surprise or star-struck American Wow-factor emotion.
” I am sure Mr. Di Capprio would be delighted to have the Sabraws join his party,” I said without missing a beat. (My effrontery was in full bloom because my husband was still arranging for the luggage to be taken out of the car.) Had he been with me, I would have blushed, and said, ” Oh, I see.”
We ate at a touristy restaurant outside of the town thanks to Monseiur Di Capprio.
The next morning, everything looked better. The day spent in Saint-Paul-de-Vence was lovely in all respects.
As the day wound down to a satisfying denouement, we took a turn, walking and exploring as if a guide were with us. There, opening to the bright Rivieran sunshine, like a natural extension made so for citizens of the small town, so as not to spend their final resting place away from its elegance, was a small cemetery. You can see the ocean in the background.
Going grave to grave, noting the dates, the names, and the implications of the engravings, we moved along, one by one. For some reason, this small cemetery enchanted me.
And then, without warning, fanfare, or sign, we came upon a grave upon whose name we least expected.
One of the 20th century’s giants in modern artistic expression.
Child of Hasidic Russian Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement, a territory where Jews were required to live in Tsarist Russia.
A Jew in a Christian graveyard.
Other Jews had left their messages to Marc Chagall, there on his marble tomb.
At the time, I pondered this gravestone and all of its implications, but it wasn’t until last week, when the Wall Street Journal ran a review of a show in New York City of Chagall’s paintings entitled, ” Love, War, and Exile” that my thoughts drifted back to that warm afternoon when I feasted my eyes on the final resting place of one of the most unusual artists of the twentieth century.
Perhaps because I have spent a year with the writing of W.G. Sebald, an Anglo-German whose body of work examines the lives of displaced persons, exiled by war and anti-Semitism, I am now taking up a study of Marc Chagall.