Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Le Feu de la St. Jean

I'm a wee bit tardy, since it's not Monday here anymore....nevertheless, it's Monday somewhere and this is another Monday Memory...same time last year. Perfectly timed since today is the Summer Solstice.

I just want to make it clear right now, I did not jump over the fire!

Saturday morning, my friend Holly and I climbed on the bus and headed up to her house in the little village of Peypin d’Aigue in the Vancluse region of the Luberon Valley. After picking up her newly leased car in Pertuis (that’s another story in itself…a tried and true New Yorker who hasn’t really driven since 1983, relearning in France!) and buying some groceries, we headed to Peypin. I have been here before and it’s rural and small with a population of about 500 souls. Holly is the only foreigner here which is rather unusual for the Luberon because it’s such a desired location to buy holiday and retirement property. But this makes it all the more fun. As she said to me before we left, “you’re going to have to speak French this weekend, honey. There ain’t nothing else!”

As we drove the last little road into the village, past the farms and vineyards and under the final canopy of lush, green trees, I could feel the heaviness of the summer heat dissipate and I was beginning to see what all the fuss is about.

We had come this particular weekend because Holly’s local friend Sylvie had told her there was to be a village barbeque and bonfire. That sounded like so much fun and we certainly didn’t want to miss this opportunity. She told us to wear our “baskets” (tennis shoes) and to bring some meat and a dish to pass. That’s all we would need. We skipped the tennis shoes but spent the afternoon preparing the other necessary items.

As it turned out, we had arrived for Le Feu de la St. Jean or The Fire of St. John.

This festival is ancient, with its origins in pagan rituals, but as with many such festivals, the church made it it’s own many hundreds of years ago. It is celebrated in other countries as well, with slightly different traditions. For the church, it’s the celebration of the birth of John the Baptist, but the French people mark it as the beginning of summer because it’s always held at the time of the summer solstice. In France, the celebration died out in many places after World War II but is being slowly revived. In Peypin d’Aigue, it never went away.

And so we arrived, food in hand and we made merry. Huge communal grills were set up and we all took the meat that we had brought with us and gathered around them to cook. Large tables were set up along the edge of the field and family groups gathered at the tables with their salads, desserts and Pastis. Another large table held boxes of wine provided by the village (yes, I hate to break it to you but they drink wine in boxes here too) and the leftover crudités from yesterday’s party at the school.  People surrounded the “bar” with their pitchers in hand and sometimes actually got back to their table with the pitcher still full. A little jazz band played on the corner and the village children were allowed to sing whenever the spirit moved them.

I had made a potato salad and some tzaziki and I just want to brag that both were a huge hit. Not exactly an American version of potato salad, but it had potatoes and a dressing so that counts.

Just beside all the tables, in the center of a nice, dry field, on the edge of the village overlooking a valley of vineyards, the villagers had laid a giant fire in preparation for the evenings festivities. A tiny “fire truck” (actually just a little truck with a tank and a big hose in the bed) had arrived which made me a little more relaxed about the nice, dry field. And as darkness enveloped the daylight, and after the fireworks were finished, the fire was lit to clapping and cheers from both  young and old. The idea is that you should be able to see the fire from neighboring villages and I’m quite sure that was possible. It was huge and brilliant and burning up all of the nice, dry field!  Not to worry, they’ve been doing this for a long time. The job of the man with the “fire truck” is to continuously wet down the grass around the fire so that we can begin the customary ritual…the reason we were told to wear our tennis shoes.

Over time there have been all kinds of rituals surrounding the fires of St. John, but I was only told of one that night.  Tradition has it that one needs to jump the fire and if you’re successful, you’ll be married within one year. I asked what happens if you’re not successful. “ You’ll become Joan of Arc, was the reply.

Now you can see why I abstained. Either option is unacceptable! As it turned out, no adults actually jumped the fire. Guess they didn't like the options either! But they did pull some embers from the larger blaze and made a smaller fire for the children to jump. And they jumped and they jumped and they jumped…sparks on their heels, parents urging them on and me gasping for breath wondering when we were going to have to call in the burn unit, which I’m sure would be impossible considering there is not even a grocery store in this town. Finally about midnight, people began to wander to their respective houses, or continue, as we did, at the home of a new friend for coffee and the remains of our cake.

The next morning we lounged around and finally wandered over to the village square. People were gathered under the trees next to the fountain, enjoying coffee and conversation and we sat down to enjoy the ambiance. Coffee turned to wine as more friends arrived to while away the beautiful afternoon. My potato salad from the night before was complimented again by people I’m sure I’ve never met, and we toasted Erik’s 52nd and Gille’s 48th birthdays. In spite of the fact that this little bar (the only one in Peypin) serves food, it’s perfectly okay to bring your own. So I went back to the house, piled up a plate with fresh vegetables and cheese, filled a bowl with the leftover tzaziki, tucked a baquette under my arm and we feasted again. Under the giant chestnut tree in the square next to the fountain with the dappled sunlight stippling our perfectly content faces, Holly and I marveled at the fact that we actually live here. And we can come back next weekend and the weekend after although considering the tiny population, we’ll probably run out of Baptists and birthdays soon and will have to find something else to celebrate.

Holly has an apartment in Aix as well as the house in Peypin d’Aigue and always rents one property out while she stays in the other. But Peypin d’Aigue has become her summer retreat and she no longer wants to share it with “the intruders” during its most glorious months. So she will spend the summer there, and I will get to visit whenever I want. Thank you Holly and Peypin d'Aigue for sharing your treasure with me.



  1. All these weird customs, eh? I wouldn't have wanted to jump over the fire either. Your friend is lucky having two different sorts of places to live. I would love to have a pied a terre in London as well as our house here. Mind you even a shoebox in London would be out of my budget these days.


  2. Oh, my goodness! I'm so very glad you resisted and did not, then, become "Joan of Arc!!!" Phew!!

  3. Geez I'm so behind in responses. I need a "reply" button. Anyone know how to do that?

    Julie: I understand the budget thing. Yes, she is lucky, but because she rents them out, she has to be a bit of a nomad. I'm not sure how I'd feel about that.

    Joan: I resisted mostly because I'm a klutz. Back to the 'burn unit' problem!

  4. That's it. I AM moving to France. It sounds just fab. Yummy food and stuff and bonfires and fireworks and more yummy food ..... Drool.


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