Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Getting Colder, Feeling Warmer

Nearly every sunset this month has been more beautifully flaming and camera-worthy than the last. Each evening we get a brand new combination of reds and oranges and blues found nowhere else in nature aside from the showiest of tropical flowers. You'd think we would get used to it, but still every evening while we're starting to cook dinner, we are drawn outside by a slash of red or fuscia or tangerine deep along the western horizon. We walk outdoors, and discover that the quarter sphere of sky we can see from the terrace is spattered in contrasts. Last night it was soft sea blue dotted with enormous pink stretchy marshmallows. The night before that the sunset was made of stripes of deepening oranges starting on the hills and fading upwards.

On Saturday evening, after we celebrated our early Thanksgiving dinner on the sunny terrace, we got in our cars to drive our guests up the bucolic hill above Aups and into the stark and shocking deep bowl of mountains on the other side. Rain was predicted for Sunday, the last day Bill’s parents would be with us, and we wanted to use the sunset lightshow to add a little drama as we took them on our favorite drive. As we drove up the pastoral Vermonty side of the mountain, the sun was a classic orange flameball sinking down in our back window. We crested the hill towards the stark Colorado side, where the sun painted the hillsides ahead of us in a pinky gold Alpinglow.

We drove as far as the bridge over the Gorge du Verdon, and hopped out of the cars to look at the deserted lake. But just as we closed the car doors, a cold wind swept up the beach, informing us in no uncertain terms that our lovely afternoon idyll was over. Time to go stoke up the fire.

We turned around and headed home. As we crested the hill to drop back down to town, the sun had sunk behind a miles-high gunmetal wall of cloud. There was a stark line in the sky at the edge of the cloud, behind which the whole world disappeared. It advanced on us, and we on it. By the time we got back to the house to eat a little apple pie and finish up the final round of the day’s dirty dishes, the stars and the little crescent moon had been blotted out entirely, and fat raindrops started to splatter on the stones tiles of the terrace.

The sky stayed overcast for the whole next day. (I know! Can you believe it? One whole day!) Since we arrived here in Provence, it's rained a few times, but simply never stays overcast and grey for more than the shortest periods of time. It's just about the direct opposite of these same months in eastern Michigan, where I spent three grim and dreadful gradual school winters under a sky that stayed resolutely dark until nearly 8:00 AM each day, and resolutely cloudy for what felt like weeks at a time. I used to feel like the clouds were hanging just above my eyebrows as I trudged back and forth to class.

It's no wonder I never felt like writing much of anything (certainly not a dissertation) while I was living there, and why I can't stop myself from writing now that I am here. Ann Arbor had killer delis and coffee, so it's obviously not just the food that shapes quality of life. It's also the sunshine, stupid.

After that one dreary day of grey, the mistral kicked up in the middle of the night, moaning and banging around in the chimneys of the house, sounding like distant thunder or artillery explosions. There are no flues on the chimneys here, making for some chilly rooms, high heating bills, but also some great creepy sound effects when the wind blows. None of us could sleep that night, anyway, since we knew that the alarm would be going off at 5:30 AM for Bill to drive his parents back to the airport in Nice. We had loved having Grandpere Gus and Grandmere Linda with us, and were all incredibly sad that they were leaving.

All those noisy sharp gusts of wind blew away the grey shelf of clouds and we woke up to our trusty old Provençal colorscheme: ochre hills, lush green growing things, and endless blue sky. Since it's fall, we also see yellow: turning autumn leaves, and great soft drippy golden light in the mornings. But even though the wind had done it’s duty of clearing out the heavy skies, it kept blowing anyway.

A mistral feels cold and hot at the same time. It's a very strange feeling for a New Englander, to have the wind and the sun battling it out to see which one can rule the day. With the wind blowing like mad and the sun shining so damn hard, you would think that the laundry would dry on the line. But instead the clothing just whips itself around damply for a few hours before I have to finish it off with twenty minutes or so in the tumble dryer.

After hearing how much fuel we had been burning with the heating system on, we decided that it might be prudent to simply leave it off, buy a little bit of firewood, and wear a few layers of sweaters around the house. Being a fan of enormous puffy comforters, I had already bought a few for the beds, so we are nice and toasty warm at night. But the house could be downright chilly during the day, unless you were basking in the direct afternoon sun coming through a window, in which case you were suddenly hot.

In fact, during the last few days, it was so windy and sunny that I kept getting extremely confused about whether I was warm or cool or downright cold. This is different from the confusing temperatures in Paris, where it can be so damp and bonechilling outside, and then so damply tropically hot and stuffy in the Metro. Whenever I am there, I spend the day irritated by my clothing, which can't seem to keep up with all the changes. I've often wondered how those stylish and self-contained Parisians on the trains can just sit there so calm and collected while I am dripping in icky sweat, and then look so breezy and comfortable and Autumn-chic outside when I feel like I’d like to put on a full-body snowmobile suit.

Here, the weather is still confusing, but more gently so, here you are lightly baked and air conditioned at the same time. It's a whole lot more pleasant, but still so different from any weather I’ve ever known before. You wouldn't think that something as simple as weather could be so completely different in different places, as there are really only four factors: temperature, windspeed, humidity and light. But then you travel somewhere new, and find your whole outlook totally changed by the specifics of the sky.

Strangely enough, the new chill in the air seems to be changing the way we are being received by our neighbors here in the little town. Two months into school, three months into our trip, I have mastered the flat French face and no longer smile and wave stupidly at total strangers. I even gave up on ever being spoken to at the school portail, assuming I would just spend the year enjoying the few people who had already been kind to us.

But then I suddenly discovered that we were suddenly being greeted fairly warmly by the townspeople who had been so distant at first. The other day, as our whole family was walking together down our little walled chemin, the lane towards town, a woman driving by in a little grey car actually smiled and waved. Not just a headnod or a tidy little perfunctory "Bonjour, Mesdames et Monsieurs," but an actual stretch-out-the-sides-of-your-mouth grin and friendly open hand.

The next day, as Grace was practicing her sprinting on the same little road, and I was practicing my own brand new walking speed -- an extremely slow and lazy sort of wander that I have developed this year -- we both greeted an older man with a teeny white dog on a leash. He, too, smiled generously, and even offered a few helpful suggestions on Grace's running form. He was an athlete himself, he told me, a sportif who enjoyed nearly every form of exercise. When I told him we were from New York, he told me all about his very favorite movie -- Eddie Murphy's midcareer masterpiece, The King of New York. He spoke about its genius the way a freshman undergraduate who has just discovered film studies would talk about Truffault or Ray or Goddard. I found my French skills more than accurate for us to carry on a legitimately enriching and pleasant dialogue for the entire remaining portion of my slow meandering back to our wooden gate.

And THEN, yet another neighbor stopped me to comment on how much she liked my shirt, and to question me about where I had gotten it, and perhaps where she could get one herself. I was wearing this crazy swirly print thing from, and I did a creditable job of spelling ah-tay-ashe-elle-uuh-tay-ah for her. We talked some more about our shared affection for one another's earrings. Mine were a gift from my Dad, swirling silver spirals bought from the artist who made them at a street fair in Aix. Hers were two different ones, for some reason she could not explain. But no matter: she was seeking me out, unprompted, and we were having a real conversation. We were neighbors.

Why now? Is the change in me, or in my steadily developing language skills? Perhaps now that I can say a lot more, I’m a whole lot less boring and panicked-looking. Certainly my new Provençal amble is more welcoming than my rushed New Yorker’s stride.

France has lots more reflexive verbs than does English. Rather than being bored, one “bores oneself.” Rather than being angry, one “angers oneself.” I have always liked the way that French puts the onus of these unpleasant feelings on the person having the feelings – rather than always blaming a flawed external environment. (Grace agrees, and in honor of the wisdom of the phrase “s'ennuyer,” has decided to call her own blog “I Do Not Bore Myself.”) So perhaps the reflexive verb "s'approcher," (to approach, to come closer) explains things. Perhaps it is not that I was being isolated, but rather that I needed to bring myself to approach, to find a way to bring myself closer.

Or, perhaps I got so used to being ignored and looked through in this small town, and in France more generally, that my old goofy American standards for what counts as “friendly” have been completely revised. Perhaps instead of seeing Aups as a flawed version of the social world of my old home, full of the people I know and love, I see it more as it sees itself, with its own rules, conventions, and personalities. Or perhaps now that I have actual people to greet and bisou in the streets, I don’t have to care so much that the rest of the town and I have decided to both stare blankly at and totally ignore one another.

My other theory is that as the weather has gotten colder, and our little family has not disappeared from town, we have happened to stumble over the magic invisible line that exists in all of the world’s tourist towns between the summer people and the real people. One does not need to waste one’s sparse supply of friendliness on the white-sheathed Parisians, Germans, Dutch and Italians here in August to soak up the sun and be soaked by the high prices at the market. Better to save it up instead for the people you might actually see more than once or twice.

At any rate, as the weather has gotten colder, the human climate seems to be getting a whole lot warmer. Perhaps this inside/outside business goes back to our evolutionary history in the grottes and caves nearby. Once somebody is part of our tribe, and the weather starts to get threatening, we feel a primal protectiveness. Faced with chilly winds and darkening skies, everyone pulls a little closer around the shared warmth of the fire.

1 comment:

  1. I vote for the last of your theories: you all have stuck around and proved that this isn't just a touristy stay, but a longer term one. I am happy for you that you are accepting your life in new ways, that you are being accepted, and, as your observation about reflexive verbs bears out, you are accepting yourself there, your linguistic victories and foibles, your food preferences, your new, slow gait, and your new, slow life.

    Yeah for all of you.
    And peace.