Perhaps it had to do with Jesus, but today–a bright, gorgeous Monday morning– certainly wore a more flattering hue as I gave the streets of Tarbes another try. I began with a run through the Jardin Massey among well curated flower gardens and manicured trails. After a quick rinse, I made the wise decision to go the other direction from where I explored yesterday. Here, there were numerous shops, patisseries and town squares with fountains. It was cheerful and busy with tourists and locals alike. Fresh pastries filled the air from a place called Simply the Food and a chocolate cafe called Nectar seemed to produce happy customers. The Tour de France is most certainly in town, getting themselves ready for the sendoff tomorrow near the old railway station, which stands tall and full of pride, as though nostalgic for another time a hundred years ago.
But something is still a little off. Scanning the scene, one thing remains consistent whether Sunday, Monday, day or night. The men. They are everywhere! So skewed is the sex ratio, Jonathan and I have begun to call it: Man-Town. And not just any kind of man. They travel in pods–two to six at a time. They can be seen bumbling around all day, leaning against walls and sitting on benches a few feet apart from one another, not making eye contact, but clearly talking business out the sides of their mouths. Holding their cigarettes between their thumb and forefinger, they seemingly work out sketchy deals with other equally questionable men. Scanning the streets, every other man fits this profile– middle to late age, the contours of a growing pot belly, button down oversized shirt and a listless expression painted on their faces. Every time I thought to sit on a park bench, I realized I was one female among a herd of men. So I took To Kill a Mockingbird back to my hotel for some leisure reading. At this point I realized that perhaps this was an element to the harshness, the grit to this town. They need more women. And bakeries. And cute, babbling French kids. Instead, I got to witness a greasy, lanky guy (yet not without a bourgeoning pot belly), obliviously farmer blow his runny nose a few feet from me in the public square. Even in France, that’s pretty unappetizing.
Across the road from this display of refined behavior, an incredibly old church caught my eye. I was instantly intrigued. There. That was it. Grounded with resilience over years of destruction, territorial battles and recreation, this church had seen so much. And its eyes seemed… sore. It was weathered but wise. This massive stone structure was quick to sound the noon bell, but reserved when it came to unearthing its identity. I spent a good ten minutes trying to find a name, much in vain. I looked at street names and a local cafe to whisper a hint: St. Terese of Avila. I had no idea just who this woman was until now.
St. Terese seemed born to give her life to God. So dedicated to the cause, she tried to run away at age seven to begin living a life of martyrdom (thankfully, her uncle caught her outside the city walls and shepherded her back in to resume a few more years of normative, nuclear childhood development). Upon the death of her mother, though, she was out of there. Mary mother of Jesus became her spiritual mother to guide her moving forward. She joined a Catholic Carmelite convent, learned the lingo and began her lifelong marriage to God. Thing is, that same little girl who was ready to kick dust to honor her calling at age seven had only gotten more stubborn with age (as we do). Quickly, she learned that she had to create a an offshoot of the Carmelite convent–one that wasn’t so laid back and ineffective. Also, one that worked to renew their intentions and entailed a certain amount of pain. In suffering, there was truth… for her, at least. I might argue that a bottle of DRC could get you to truth with a little less pain. They became known as the Discalced Carmelites, marked by bare feet.
She was a bonafide badass. She fought for what she felt was correct, was a prolific author of her time, swayed powerful men in both church and state to bend an ear, persuaded the wealthy to support the many convents she erected throughout Spain (and now parts of southwest France) and ultimately died feeling she had done her best. She was also known to levitate at mass, which is kind of cool. Only in 1970, did the Pope Paul IV honor her as a Doctor of the Church– making her one of only two women at that time to receive such distinction.
And so, as I look at this 800 year old church today in all its paradox– at once uninviting yet fascinating nonetheless– I understand now that it should be none other than this if in her honor. She was simple, focused, pious and severe. She stripped away at life’s excess the older she became and didn’t waver in her priorities.
Because I couldn’t peer into that church, I wandered into another. It just felt right. Nearby, St. Jean Baptise was quite the opposite. Its doors were wide open, lit with candles and playing choir music overhead. It was just me in there, and for the first time in weeks, I felt like I could exhale. I’m not overly religious, but today I felt something. So I savored it. I was where I needed to be at that exact moment.
The food scene, my friends, has been falling short. To be fair, last night was very satisfying, as we ate some gambas (large shrimp) and a large local specialty salade du chevre chaude (warm goat cheese salade) at L’Authentique streetside with a bottle of Tariquette Colombard/Sauvignon– simple and perfect for a warm summer evening. Lunch today was not so satisfying at L’Epicerie. There were few options, so I went with the Salade du Gasconne– otherwise known as duck salad. Duck everything– from foie to… well, I don’t actually know, but certainly varied organs. Not a huge duck (or organ) fan, I picked at my lettuce, drank my out of condition rose from last year’s vintage and just chalked it up to a fail.
Tonight, we try again at a recommended spot. More on that and the Tour tomorrow… Go Cannondale-Garmin!