They say that the brutally fierce mistral wind can destroy the spirit of a man or woman of Provence. But what’s not mentioned is that the mistral’s reach extends far beyond Provence. The wind can rip through the coastal areas of its southern neighbor Languedoc, where we’re staying and unhinge shutters and spirits in a flash.
Today, the wind struck.
We knew it was coming and so we didn’t make many plans, allowing the weather to dictate the tenor of the day one step at a time.
In the morning, we made sure to acquire one last time a mille feuille at the bakery (they only bake them on the week-end), and a baguette, and pain au chocolat, and almond cookies (our appetites for baked goods are growing as we move into the second and final week of our visit here).
[I keep an eye out on fathers, wanting to see if their eyes sparkle more with pride on this day – Father’s Day here (as in the States). They seem only as happy as always.]
In the somewhat sheltered space of the café bar (the one that just reopened under new ownership on the upper square), we watch life unfold.
A fine activity, which we continue to do after a satisfying interlude over my café crème.
Because of the wind, people walk with a brisk stride...
... except for the young ones. The girl walks her dog slowly to the bakery, the two boys eat their second breakfast up on the wagon that stands decoratively at a village intersection.
I notice with some sadness that our village grocer has decided to take a few days off. (Note the writing on the blackboard.)
I imagine he has learned of the lovely weather forecast for next week and has decided a rest is in order. We wont be short for produce – there’s plenty of it at the markets and supermarkets, but I realize that I wont see him again. We’ll be gone by the time La Ciboulette decides to open its doors again.
Ed studies the direction of the wind relentlessly, attempting to guess its impact on the sea. Since you’re curious, I tell him, why don’t we head out for the beaches.
Not wanting to drive much, we stay with the closest beach town – Argeles-sur-Mer. The beach by the town is not especially a winner (too many recreational gigs for the vacationers who’ll flock here next month), but as I mentioned earlier, some good soul has rated all the beaches of Languedoc and has given high marks to the beach just north of Argeles.
Not hard to find and not hard to get to.
But, oh, the wind! Although it is Sunday, the beach is nearly empty. The sky alternates between a dazzling blue and a sinister white, but even when the sun is bright as can be, the wind makes you zip up and huddle into yourself.
And the beach: it is a sand storm in the making. Gusts of fine pebbles lash out at you, punishing and cruel, as if you had violated some sacred rule against stepping out during this meteorological temper tantrum.
Families take one look and then retreat. Happy Father’s Day indeed.
I watch Ed pace by the water's edge.
I find shelter behind a low fence that on better days serves as an enclosure for an outdoor refreshment area. It is, in fact, fairly pleasant down there: the sand comes at you in a trickle and the wind passes over, rushing to rearrange the sands of the long beach and to make a fine spray of the turbulent white capped waters.
Surely, I say to Ed, you will not swim today?
He looks at the waves. Not perfect, he tells me. But pretty good.
There is no holding him back. I warn him that we are rather far from habitable premises and a possibility of prompt rescue (we like to choose spots bordered by nature rather than houses), but this is silly patter on my part. I’m talking to a man who has sailed the ocean, indeed, the entire eastern seaboard by himself in a wee sailboat. Rescue efforts indeed. And so I merely reassure him that if he is pushed out to sea, I will surely find someone to care for his cats back home...
In he goes.
I stay by the protective barrier, as does a small handful of others, some choosing to sunbathe au naturel, or at least, as is the habit here, au naturel from the string panties up, others choosing to hide in protection beneath towels.
Ed comes back refreshed and invigorated. No orphaned cats this time around.
I look out at the sea. I can see Collioure at the other side of the wide bay. And then, because the mistral makes you act in unpredictable and devilish ways, I mumble – maybe I should try it.
We eat lunch first – baguette with cheese and tomato. If you hunch, you can avoid getting sand into it. Then I wait for a cloud to pass. And then I take my own plunge into the raging waters of the Mediterranean.
Being thrashed around by the waves and by the wind and by the sand all at once is almost a life defining experience. I can’t even say that I am cold. I am too engaged in this mad dance, this wild affair with the wind and water.
But not for long. My interest in wild flings is always short lived.
[In the interest of honesty, I notice that further down the beach, toward the town, there is a life guard station and that, despite the threatening appearance, the warning level for this day is only at yellow. When the flag is red, you are not permitted in the water.]
We dry off against the fence again. The wind now rages in spurts. A family comes to the beach, the dad (happy father's day to you!) shows his little girl how to fly a kite.
Then the wind gusts again. They huddle, wait and then retreat.
And we do too. It’s five and I am ready for a refreshment. Argeles-sur-Mer is a beach town, but away from the shore, it has a downtown commercial heart. I’m curious if it comes alive on a June Sunday afternoon.
It does not. Most places remain closed and perhaps due to the wind, there are few people out and about. But the green grocer is open and we pick up one of the deliciously sweet melons that are in season at the moment.
And we do find an open bakery.
You don’t suppose we should check out their mille feuilles? Ed asks.
We do. Again, we encounter an extraordinarily friendly shopkeeper who willingly selects the very largest pastry for Ed.
It’s evening now. The wind still hasn’t died down. In Sorede, the Catalan flags are flapping furiously.
We walk up to our new favorite, the reopened café bar (which is also a pizzeria and restaurant and ice cream shop). Children are playing outside and a few men are having a drink at the outdoor tables, but they are the exception.
There is a pleasant buzz inside as people come and go, picking up pizzas to take home, pausing for a drink, stepping out for a cigarette, coming in again to watch the match on TV. Children scamper, dogs sleep, we order salads with anchovies and pizzas and the world seems to be a happy and safe place for this fleeting minute.
Walking home, we pass through the lower square and the “other” village café bar, You have to feel sorry for them – they had advertised a special musical event for yesterday (Billy “Halladay” was to croon all evening long) but the sketchy weather caused them to reschedule it for this evening. The wind has kept the people home once again. A solitary pair and a one other woman sway to his melodies.
We watch and sway for a few minutes and then walk home.