Winds of change

Towards the end of a bleak, mid-February Friday, the wind started to groan through the narrow, village streets. Shutters creaked and in the valley below a filmy curtain materialised over the vines and blurred the outlines of the farmhouses.

Through this gathering tumult, and with flicks of rain on the breeze, I was hurrying home, collar up, resolutely plunging past the Café Le Progrès into whose warm, smoky bar I was profoundly tempted to detour. As I’d emerged from the edge of the forest, I had felt something indefinably different in the shift of the air above me and the heave of the branches. I felt like a spy who had noticed a subtle change in the enemies’ routines but couldn’t quite pin down what it was. Something was going on …

From what the patronne calls the terrace bar of the Café le Progrès, you can see in the middle distance, across regiments of knuckley vines, fallow fields and stone houses, whose earthy walls and faded tiles seem to hold on to the last light, the snow covered heights of Mont Ventoux. It’s the highest point around here, but it has another notoriety. The summit is, reputedly, the windiest place on earth, because the dominant winds in this region—the mistral, the tramontane and the sirocco—all at certain times meet across the top of Mont Ventoux. It must be hell up there.

The mistral is a northerly, and in these winter months, when it gets down to serious business, feels as if it is surgically removing all sensation below the knees, let alone what it’s doing to the bits of your face that are left exposed by the tedious necessity to keep breathing and to see where you’re going. The tramontane comes across the Pyrenees overflying vast amounts of snow, so it’s a chilly little blast but, hereabouts, reasonably rare. The sirocco blows in from Africa, and this, as the Monty Pythons used to say, is where the story really begins.

When I returned home, I heard new noises everywhere through the house. Boards creaked, a distant door banged, several shutters flapped loose from their locks. And when I lit the fire, billows of smoke erupted from what had been till then the highly efficient chimney as strange winds barrelled down it and rolled like gatecrashers at a party into the living room. All night the wind, driving intermittent rainstorms before it, thumped at doors and windows, rattled, shook, thrummed, screamed, as if, somehow, the house had drifted out to sea in a Force 8 gale. I didn’t know it then, during a sleepless night, but this was the sirocco, and not just a wind. In the morning, though the sirocco itself has subsided to gasps and puffs, its gift is everywhere: red sand all the way from North Africa, transformed to mud by the rain. Windowpanes are mottled, doorways clogged; red streaks the street names—rue Kléber Guendon, ‘victime du nazisme le 26 Avril 1944’—and lies in drifts on their pavements; red gouts spot the leaves and the lawn like an exotic disease in the meticulously tended ‘Jardin Jean Moulin, unificateur de La Résistance Francaise, 1899–1943, assassiné par les Nazis’; russet mud clots the cobblestones of the Place Albert Roure, ‘victime du nazisme le 28 Juin 1944’. At the end of the rue de l’église, the Church of Saint Luc, protected neither by its holiness nor its craggy stone, has taken a pounding: tiles are smashed and the porch is silted up with the heretical red invader. But in its 900 years, it can’t be Saint Luc’s first sirocco.

In the Place de l’Horloge, Madame Gauguin paces round the square muttering and waving a broom, as if to say that she was in no doubt about the dimensions of the task—it was just a matter of where to begin. Above her, on the clock tower, the flag of the European Union and the Tricoleur are knotted together in a violent tangle—an ambiguous symbolism, as the Mayor wryly notes—while the local colours lie in a sodden, red heap against the Town Hall wall. On nearby rue Raoul et Raymond Sylvestre, ‘victimes du nazisme le 26 Avril 1944’, the pharmacie is closed for repairs. Not so the boucherie in Kléber Guendon, however, where Monsieur Leclos regards the striped window and sandy steps with a distaste from which only his permanent dream of ‘le Roogby’ (fired up that very morning by the impending Six Nations competition) could distract him. Not the boulangerie either, where Madame Rochard—formidable, aproned, testy—adds an edge and some volume to her sturdy morning barracking of her amiable son and her small, floury, baker husband as she mobilises her forces against the sand like a tank commander in the desert. And not the épicerie, where Mademoiselle Reynard, who serves customers one-handed while holding her mobile phone to her ear with the other and talking into it incessantly, has abandoned her phone in favour of an ineffective broom and hysterics.

And so it went. As their ancestors had done before there were Christian churches and long before the century of world wars, the philosophical villagers trooped out into the winter sunlight to sweep up after the sirocco on which, as ever, not history, not age, not monuments or memorials, or commerce had made the slightest impression.    

Brian Matthews is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Victoria University, presently living and working in France.



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