Sunday, January 13, 2008

from Cassis, France: the wind

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Like anyone, I have my share of terrors, but until this day, I have never registered any significant concern about the wind. I mean, where’s the harm in a breeze gently playing with the leaves and pine needles on a sunny day?

Today, I found myself clinging with panic to pine branches, wondering if I could make it just a few steps to safety.

It was only the second time ever that I found myself repeating over and over to Ed – I can’t I can’t I can’t… (the other time was in the Canadian Rockies, where I was convinced that one step would send me plummeting down a mountain side of loose rock).

The day starts out magnificently! The mistral (a wind that comes to Provence and the Cote d’Azur every now and then) pushed away the clouds, creating that clear crisp air that gives this region its magical, bold colors.

We are having a leisurely breakfast downstairs, enjoying the bustle of the kitchen staff at Nino’s as it prepares for the noon and evening meals. Our big hike to the “fjords” is for tomorrow. Today is a day for meandering along the eastern shores of the town. We tell Nino of our plans. He frowns. Le mistral – he say with a shake. The flags are out. You can’t go anywhere. It’s le mistral. It’ll drive you mad.

That seems a tad dramatic. We decide to look for a second opinion.

At the tourist office, madame seemed less concerned.
Can we walk up to the cliffs at the edge of town?
Well, it’s a long walk. Maybe a taxi to the trail?

(I think people regard Americans, or Americans our age, or Americans my age and my gender as frail.)

But the wind, is it okay to walk?
They will close the roads in the mountains if it gets to be too strong.

We take a bottle of water and set out. But after a few steps I want to turn back. Not because of le mistral, mind you.

Ed, I need to change to boots. The new ones that I purchased for the trip.
He stares at me with a complete lack of comprehension.
Look around you! Every single woman is wearing strikingly beautiful boots! I have some in the room…
For hiking??
It’ll be on solid surfaces mostly, wont it? And besides, mine are Madison sensible ones. Still, I’ll feel like I belong.

Our climb begins. At the beginning, it is wonderfully benign. We pass coves where waves crash with beautiful sprays of water…

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…and hillsides with vines planted in terraced rows, spilling down to the sea.

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But near the summit, as we pick up the footpath, we suddenly begin to feel and hear the force of the wind. Its rush across the planes and mountains of Provence sounds like an airplane engine. At times, as it careens toward the heathered cliffs, it's more like a firecracker. But it is fierce.

The road barricade is up and so it can’t be that bad, can it?

Peter Mayle wrote this about the mistral: (it is) a brutal, exhausting wind that can blow the ears off a donkey.

Ears off a donkey, cars off a road – how about tourists off a cliffside?

As we climb higher, we are whipped and pounded with such force that I utter my first series of “I can’t’s…”

Still, the views are compelling.

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Sure, we are alone on the trail, but it is January. Who goes hiking in Cassis in January (in boots that will never, ever be the same)? The wind pushes us toward the mountain and so reason tells us that being blown off is not possible. But it’s finicky. Sometimes a gust will brush to the side and then I feel like it’s teasing me, coaxing me to the cliff’s edge so that it can deliver a final punch and push me over.

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At other times, it is deceptively calm. Nothing more than a breeze. And I crawl (yes, crawl; I’m no fool – I will NOT stand up and be toppled by an angry French wind) within three feet of the edge (you cannot get me to a cliff’s edge even when it’s calm out there) and I feel it’s all worth it – the views are that good.

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But as we continue along the trail, the wind picks up again and even though the edge is now ten feet away, I feel I am a mere dustball, about to be picked up and carried to the white-capped waters of the blue Mediterranean. I cling to the branches of a small pine and let Ed move forward without me.

We are on the mountain ridge. We see cliffs by the sea and the chalky mountains of Provence all the way to the north. I can hardly recall ever feeling so enthralled by a combination of water and land.

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The afternoon light is changing and I am reminded that the day ends early. We turn back.

Along the port, the people of Cassis are milling about, enjoying the week-end sun, the camaraderie of their neighbors, the sweet treats of life in a coastal small town. We join them and as I contemplate which pastry should be the chosen one…

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…and how much of the crepe Grand Marnier I should leave for Ed, I think to myself that the danger was completely imagined up there, on the cliffs.

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I look outside of our Nino’s windows and I watch the sun leave strokes of orange and pink on the cliffs we had scaled and I think – how tame!

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(view to the left: today's hike)

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(view to the right: tomorrow's hike)

Still, when we sit down to a seafood Provencal dinner at Nino’s…

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… I am not so sure. Our host tells us – le mistral, it can roll cars off the road.

The wind is dying down tonight. They say it has run its course. It is done for now.

Before falling asleep, I spend a good half hour untangling my hair. Ed on the other hand collapses instantly. You can't tell if his hair has been touched by the mistral -- it sort of always looks like this.

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