“Do not weep and do not grieve nor be irresolute, for His grace will be entirely with you and will protect you.” from the gospel of Mary Magdalene
She smiled, a timid one that spread all over her face. I think it spread all over her body because standing infront of her, I felt my hair rise and my skin tingle. She looked at me with apprehension: “are you sure?”, she asked. I said “yes” and she hugged me, overjoyed because I offered her a ride to see the tombs of her parents, past All Souls Day. She wouldn’t have dared visit on her own lest her siblings see her. And anyway, she didn’t have a car and getting there required a major logistical and psychological preparation. After their mother’s death, there was a big fight about inheritance, about childhood inequalities, about personalities. The few souvenirs she chose to keep were dumped infront of her doorstep, no note, just a heap of what could have been taken as garbage. That day, five years ago, Marie knew that the family she had for more than fifty years, is gone.
Now, this sounds like a sad story but it won’t be. It starts with a joyride from Brussels to Libramont in the Ardennes of Belgium. On the way, Marie chatted about her new resolution to fight melancholy. Sorry, this still sounds like its veering towards a sad story…but it’s not. We talked about books, the theater, the new art exhibits, our love of writing and Marie Madeleine, the “apostle to the apostles, Jesus’ priestess-wife, the sinner.” Marie, who is a non-believer, has taken to reading the gospels of Marie Madeleine, “the intellectual in the company of fishermen”, texts which she describes were beautifully written and mystical.
After an hour and a half drive, we entered her town. She became tensed, looking around yet hoping nobody sees her. She explained how different it was when she was a child, pointed at her school, showed the church, and recited the owners’ names of familiar houses where she delivered meat packages on top of a bicycle. From the main road, we took a right turn and at the corner, sat her former home. Her eyes were misty, looking at her father’s former famous butcher shop, then a successful family enterprise that sold meat and poultry, sausages, paté, terrines and cold cuts. Marie remembers Christmas vacations spent cutting meat and preparing packages that went all the way to France and England. This was the heart of Belgian delicatessen. She was almost afraid to discover that it was abandoned and left in ruins, but felt elated when she saw that it been converted into a chocolate shop by the new owners. The cemetery was not far from there, in huge plots facing the famous exhibition hall for a well-known agricultural fair. One hundred and fifty kilometers of road for a ten minute prayer.
After this solemn morning agenda, we hopped to nearby St. Hubert for an afternoon junket. I’ve never been to St Hubert, Europe’s hunting and nature capital. The town was originally called Andage but was later commemorated to Bishop Hubert of Liege, whose bones remained intact after it was transferred to the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. He was canonized in 743 for his evangelical work and the series of purported miracles near his tomb. Legend has it that during a hunting expedition on Holy Friday, a deer with a crucifix between his antlers appeared before him and ask him to repent. For seven years, he lived as a hermit in the Ardennes forest where he will also be known as healer of rabies. He is also the patron saint of animals and forest rangers, and Protector of Butchers. (With all these titles, he must be very tired praying in heaven and no bourquin, a local sausage, to comfort him)
The best time to visit Saint Hubert is in September, when the first weekend is celebrated as the International Day of Hunting, featuring parades, a concert of trumpets, benediction of animals, a dog show, and other folkloric fanfare. You may then visit the famous Basilica with its gray baroque façade and the luminous interiors of pink, yellow and blue stones.
Around November, you would still get a lot of game (hare, pheasant, wild boar, deer) except that we decided on a Swiss cheese fondue at the taverne..how else could it be called…the St Hubert at the Place du Marché. The menu offers local flavours with a wide selection of game and the backroom is decorated like a Swiss cottage. We were served a very tasty pumpkin soup, concocted with fresh orange juice, followed with a fondue of three Swiss cheeses, a plate of cold cuts, green salad and diced bread that we plunged into the slowly heated cheese. There, we met the lady of the house, Beata Lapinska, who painted animals as if they were coming out from the fables of La Fontaine. A bejewelled she-wolf with a red hood stared at us with haunting eyes as we dipped bread that finally, Marie couldn’t resist buying it.
Just beside the Basilica is a quaint literary tea shop, some cozy place where you can have tea or coffee, cakes and books to read and exchange. La Petite Madeleine is one of those cute ones with home-made desserts, candies and madeleines. We were so full from the fondue lunch that we thought we should just do window-tasting but ended up pushing the door, crashed into the animated discussion of customers, fancied the original book lamps, bought second-hand books, found out that it was a young lady infront of the ovens, and went out with two sachets of mini-madeleines.
In France, there is madeleine, the madeleine of the town of Comercy and the madeleine of Marcel Proust, French novelist who in his seven-volume memoire “In Search of Lost Time” (À la recherche du temps perdu), declared that a single bite of a madeleine, drowned in tea, sparked a travel in time, a re-discovery of oneself. Here’s the excerpt “….one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a drink I did not ordinarily take…. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines’ which look as though they have been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell….I raised my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses…. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. ”
I offered the sachet of madeleines to Marie, beseeching Proust to intercede for her self-discovery in her search for lost time. May one little madeleine bring her love and happiness, essential wishes that remained elusive for Marie all these years. And may St Hubert heal her from the epidemy of hate, of solitude, of despair.
No prayers for you. Just an offering of a recipe of madeleines…. that you may enjoy on a cold winter day. (Check the Recipes page) No promises of self-discoveries, just the pleasure of the senses.