Seldom an evening goes by in this bit of Provence without an impressive sunset.
We’re in the Vaucluse, near Avignon - in a hilltop village replete with a crumbly castle, windy roads, metre-thick walls, and a lofty view onto the parched plains below.
But it wasn’t so parched in the last week of July.
...and enjoy the sight of rainwater flowing out of our electric power sockets at three in the morning...
And it took us three hours of continuous toil (I mean continuous) to empty the saucepans we put under the flowing power sockets, bail out the cupboards and brush the tide towards the french doors and out into the torrent beyond.
The video of the storm doesn’t do it justice. We were a bit busy at the time, so missed filming the long peak of the five hour raging storm. It was like being in a fish tank with a faulty light flickering on and off madly for all that time. The thunder was so loud it made you crouch with fear - as though "shock and awe" had come to Vaucluse. At one point, three detonations, following close on each other, sounded like arms dumps being blown up, on the slope opposite.
We walked into the grey waterfall of rain and could see see no further than a couple of metres in front of our faces. As cold needles of rainfall soaked us in seconds, we could see no special emergency on the surface - no bubbling drain covers, or new river. Our best guess is that mostly redundant water channels underground were funnelling the entire hill’s excess rain in our direction - and right through the house.
They call it an “orageux”, which sounds like the “horror” it brings, rather. The local newspaper recorded 84mm of rain (3.5 inches) in those short hours, with winds reaching 150 km per hour (95mph).
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The next day, Remi, the patron of a local restaurant waggled his little beard with emotion as he described it as a terrible event - “right over us this time” - but rare - “once, maybe twice a year”.
Jean-Pierre, the local post-master, had already confirmed that the South of France - like so much of Western Europe - suffered a bad summer last year (2012), then a long, cold winter and worryingly late spring this year.
As I write, the nasty, saw-edged rasp of the cigales (cicadas) is surrounding us with a wall of sound. They open up when it gets warmer than 24°C apparently - which means almost every day since the start of June. Relieving us from that cacophony is the mean machine-gun rattle of the magpie, the bark of crows, and the idiotic kazoo-hoot of the turtle dove. Other animals are invisible, sensibly hiding from the stark sunshine.
Several storms (none as bad as the one I’ve described) have been impressive - firework displays of heat lightening (sheets of flashing light from horizon to horizon) and the traditional zig-zag forks.
And they’ve been long-lasting (12 hours of harsh wind and rain is our record).
For most of the summer, breezes here seem absent, and you awake as refreshed and lively as a corpse.
But the wild card is the Mistral - the wind heaving its way down from the North, corralled by the Rhone Valley into a wild soul-stealing tempest. The pastel blue or pastel green shutters you threw open to try to air your home must now be sealed shut in a hurry.
Far away it starts. Like the wheeze of an old man waking.
Then builds sinuously into a bullying, hissing rush and roar - all within seconds.
Irish Senator David Norris once startled me by delivering James Joyce’s line : “Seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos” - the onomatopoeic description of the sound of the seashore. The authenticity of the description was added to by the gentle spray of his salvia on my face as he spoke. Here’s my attempt at Joyce, then...
(God help us)
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...CHAAAAGHAAAAA... ...FFFFFCHAAAAAAASSSSSHHHHHH... ...FWHOOOOOOOOOOOOOH”
...The sound of the Mistral. I think that puts you in the picture.
It generally lasts two to four days, on average, we are told.
This June we were buffeted for 10 days.
Along with the vast wind comes a huge change in air pressure - which can be hard for folks with Migraines and the like. Headaches abound. In Peter Maile’s charming and undemanding blockbuster “A Year in Provence” - which I’ve only just read 25 years late - he points out that Provence sees the highest suicide rate in France. A combination of the Mistral, the scorching temperatures of summer, and the plunging temperatures of winter... Sometimes as low as minus 20°C!
Right now, the shutters must be closed from about midday to seven pm, whatever the wind. Homes simply get cooked by the outside air otherwise. A siesta - which we truly appreciate for the first time now - is essential. And helps make up for the lack of sleep in the night.
So we hate this place, do we?
Far from it. The sunny disposition of the people... The slower pace of life (again we “caught ourselves on”, striding up the hill to Yolande’s cafe as though we had to catch the 17:20 from Euston)...
The fact that the fruit and veg you buy at the local market (every town has one) always tastes great...
And, of course, the fact that we can sit back and enjoy all of this for the first time in our lives (for a while), makes this place special.
New work, a backlog of paperwork, and emergencies have weighed on us to a degree. Quickened the heartbeat.
But that’s no good when you’re waiting for Michelle to decipher her scrawls on the paper table cloths at her stall in the village market, and for her to grumble over her calculator, totting up what you’ve bought.
Her friend’s Chihuahua, Julie, has crawled panting underneath the trestle table. You have to stand still and bake, while the bulging red peppers, courgettes, sleek aubergines, fat feve beans, and jolly plump tomatoes are piled against the stout Corsican drum of cheese, ripe juicy local apricots and subtly purple lavender garlic.
With a bottle of local red, I’ll make a ratatouille with most of the above. And alongside hunks of good pain campagne, perhaps we won’t have to move for the rest of the day. Or be able to.