Hey. It’s me.
I’m in France.
That’s me sitting against a chapel in a very bright sun, just before my skin turned about fourteen shades darker. I took that photo because I wanted to see what all the other people were taking photos of, because for some reason I looked up from a bit of a rest and saw multiple cameras pointed at me.
Still not quite sure what they were looking at. Sometimes not sure what I’m looking at, either. Pilgrimages are like that. They’re supposed to be like that. You’re supposed to get a bit confused about precisely who you are and what you’re doing and experience bare life.
That’s been happening, yeah.
Also, though–this time’s a bit different. Unlike my last two pilgrimages, I’m traveling with someone else. I haven’t actually been alone since I left Seattle except for a few bits of space here and there. It’s a bit exhausting always being around people, even for someone extroverted like myself. A bit draining to find your attention drawn from your own thoughts to those of others, even as you find them fascinating and affable.
So I take little moments for myself when others are occupied. That photo was one of those moments, and yet I found myself being photographed by some Spaniards and a few Germans and at least one Frenchman. I think the first one to photograph me drew the attention of others, the way a finger pointed upward in a crowd can cause the entire mob to stare upward, even to point, even if there’s nothing there.
It’s a bit like this photograph, taken a few hours afterwards:
That’s a photo of people photographing something. A goddess or a saint or a statue all wrapped up in cloth, depending on what you decide. But either way, she was photographed, and people were there to photograph her. They weren’t there to photograph me (I hope, though by now I should be on some agencies’ lists, according to some detractors).
They were all there to see that thing they photographed be taken from the chapel I leaned against earlier, paraded slowly through the streets, brought to the water, and then returned. Or to document the whole thing. Or to make money from all the people who were there. Or, like me, because they’d made a vow to a goddess to help their friend get there, and then stuck around to watch.
What makes the sacred, what makes the profound, what makes the Other has much more to do with what other people think and do than we often acknowledge. I’ve said this before, and it should be said again.
And it’s a fucking beautiful thing.
Groceries by the Necropolis: Marseilles, Arles May 22-May 24th
This is Marseilles, or what I saw of it.
I was kind of tired. Alley and I had spent all night at the airport. I managed to sleep on the floor for a few hours; she woke me at 4am after wandering in slack-jawed wonder through the aisles of an airport grocery store, a theme which would continue our first week together in France.
If you’ve lived in America your entire life, the place you experience culture shock the strongest is in the grocery stores of other lands. If you’ve never left, this is perhaps hard to understand, and if you’re from Europe it probably seems a bit infantile. Americans grow up with this idea that we live in a land of endless abundance, that what is on offer to us in grocery stores is by far superior to anything available in other countries.
And of course, if you travel like a tourist, staying in hotels and eating at restaurants, you’ll have little chance to find out otherwise. That’s kind of the brilliance of subletting other people’s homes or camping: you get access to a kitchen or, like I typically do, cook food on a small campstove. In both instances, you find yourself at grocery stores, and find yourself both in awe and quite embittered.
Alley and I arrived in Marseilles, took a train to Arles, and checked into our rented studio before heading to her first experience in a French grocery store.
Though traveling by myself is generally my preference, there are quite a few things I would have missed out on if I hadn’t been traveling with Alley, not least of which was hearing her say ‘oh fuck’ and ‘wow’ and ‘oh my gods, really?’ and ‘what?’ and particularly ‘this is brilliant! wait, it doesn’t cost anything!’
Food in France is really, really cheap. And brilliant. And will make you say all the same things Alley said.
We returned to our apartment with much more food than we could possibly eat, though we did anyway, I made us dinner–pasta with merquez and vegetables, and then we finally slept.
The next day, we walked into Arles. You may know the town from Vincent Van Gogh; most of his paintings were done there, and it is also within that city that he was hospitalized for psychiatric illness.
It’s a pretty town, with lots of unacknowledged spirits and old gods and several thousand years worth of dead people, many of them originally buried here:
That’s Les Alyscamps, or part of it. Here’s some more:
Les Alyscamps is an ancient Roman burial site, though it likely predated that empire. It’s been written about by Dante, and painted by Gaugin and Van Gogh. For a city of the dead, it’s quite picturesque.
At the end of the necropolis is the last standing Christian church on the site. Like many old churches, an earlier section was added to by later builders.
Alley and I wandered through it for a few hours, watching ravens play in the trees and old stone, listening to older lives still echoing in the stone.
That night, we returned to our studio, made dinner again, and tried to sleep before waking to the reason we were in Arles, the pilgrimage of Sainte Sarah.
Other People’s Sacred: Saintes Maries de la Mer, May 25th.
There’s plenty I could write about that day, but I wasn’t there for myself. I’d made an oath to Sara le Kali I intended to keep, and an offer to Alley. She needed to be part of the pilgrimage of St. Sara, she needed someone to guide her, and I fucking love France. So it was a pretty easy decision.
I’d rather let her tell you about that day. I’ve some photos, but I mostly stood and observed, distant. It wasn’t my pilgrimage, and my time with Sara le Kali is done now.
Taking someone else to see their sacred, though? Do it, even if you get a sunburn and are really hungry and tired. Like when I took a lover to see a forest for Cernunnos a few years ago, the experience of guiding another is quite humbling.
Juste comme ‘Space Mountain’: Arles, again, May 26-May 27th
I burned my ankles.
I live most of my life in Seattle, where it does not really sun. When it does sun, it’s a bit distant, too bright for eyes accustomed 8 months of the year to grey rain. When it does sun, we may throw off our clothes and try to soak it up, but by the time you’ve gotten it it’s gone again.
My skin turns dark rather quickly when it does get sun, and stays dark, which means I don’t burn as quickly later. But there’s not much sun where I usually live, and I usually wear boots with wool socks.
So ten hours of Mediterranean sun did some stuff to my skin, and particularly seared my ankles. And maybe the rest of my skin too.
Thing is, I don’t mind.
A motif on this pilgrimage has been that of the body. That is, my body’s doing weird shit, stuff it’s never done before, all of it good. I’ve written about ‘the body of the witch’ before, and though there’s no single theoretical framework that I’ve found which describes precisely what I mean here, reading Silvia Federici, Peter Grey, Alkistis Dimech, and George Caffentzis will get you rather close. Some Zizek would help, too.
But you don’t necessarily need all that, only to know this: Capital restrains the body. That ‘body,’ however, is much larger and expansive than what we typically think of when we think body, which is part of Capital’s trick.
Capital requires humans to become reduce to workers, but to become a worker you must lose everything else about your body, all its needs and senses, its desires and abilities. We don’t much notice the process, because it starts when we’re children in school. We’re taught to sit for long hours, taught to restrain our need to urinate or walk around or sleep or eat. As we grow older, we experience much, much more of this shaping, including the shaping of our minds (which is, of course, just one part of the body).
This is the process of ‘civilization,’ the shaping of humans into civil (that is, not wild or savage or feral) subjects. This happens in any society, of course, and has always happened as long as there has been ‘civilization.’
Authority (the desire of the powerful to shape willing and obedient servants) has always influenced how we get shaped or ‘civilized,’ but under Capitalism, the shaping is more effective. This is the whole summation of Marxist theory, Post-Colonial theory, and most of the good bits of Feminist theory: Under Capital, we internalise the needs of our masters and help them control others.
The zero point, though, the place where Authority always trips up, is the body. Our bodies want to be more than mere machines and serfs and slaves. The body of the housewife wants to do more than just keep her husband and children cared for. The body of a slave wants to do more than bow its head and work in a field or a mill. The body of the worker wants to drink, and to rest, and to dream, and to shit and piss and eat and fuck. The body desires.
And witchcraft is all about embracing the desires of the body, embracing the body and all it wants and needs and can do.
So! Anyway, I threw some French guy around. Shaved head, muscle-bearish, hairy. He invited me to his apartment, so I crossed the Rhône through a rather dark bridge to his home. The entrance to his place was in a narrow alley: he was sitting on his stoop, smoking. It was all quite French.
And then we’re naked, and I made him thrash about for a bit until he got off, and he shouts,
“Rhyd….Rhyd, tu es juste comme Space Mountain.” And then, in English in case I hadn’t quite understood: “You are Disneyland!”
I didn’t correct him, but I’m actually better than Space Mountain.
On the way back from his place, I crossed the Rhône again, but this time walked along side her for quite some time before taking a bridge across.
She’s a kind one, that river. Eager to listen, happy to carry what you don’t want to hold alone down towards the ocean for you. And in light playing on the surface of water is almost always Arianrhod, who I’m realising, more than any other presence, is my guide on this pilgrimage.
Understanding quite what I’m on about here in Europe is a bit more complicated than the last few times, because there’s more of me this time than last, and more to reckon out.
I haven’t written on all the absurdity that happened around the time I posted something about the New Right on Gods&Radicals just before the beginning of this pilgrimage. It’s funny–it was a topic of conversation with almost every witch or Pagan I met in England and Wales those first ten days. The fact that the outrage was limited to America wasn’t missed on any of them, nor ever was it on me.
European Pagans are painfully aware of the connections between attempts to create new religions based off of cultural or ethnic identity and the New Right. Americans should be–it’s all around them. But American exceptionalism and the peculiar ahistorical fantasy of American existence doesn’t help much, nor do the decades of suppression, arrest, and murder of leftist thinkers and activists in the United States. Ideas don’t die easily, but bodies do.
There’ll be more on that soon, and much more from France.
Be very, very well, all of you.
And be bodies.
Previous Pilgrimage Journals:
Can You Tell Me How To Get? (Brooklyn: May 10th-12th)
Across Water Are Other Memories (Manchester, May 12-13th)
What We Are Becoming, Waiting (Shrophire, May 13th-15th)
A Language of Growling Earth (Bristol, Bath, May 15th-May 18th)
An American Exorcism (Cardiff, London May 19th-May 22nd)
Next: Perpignan, The Pyrenees, Toulouse, Lourdes, Rennes
Also, Alley Valkrie’s account of the pilgrimage of Saint Sara was published on The Wild Hunt.