Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cusp of Spring

It has been years since I didn’t have to grit my teeth just to get through the long, quiet drawn-out misery of the long nights and cold days of January and February. I have long wished to be a different sort of person, but with each passing year, it becomes clearer; for better or worse, this is all the me I’m going to be.

I live in the grip of my moods. I bob up and down, in and out of the light, within and at the mercy of the movements of the spheres. You’d think after all this time, my conscious brain would overcome the lizard one underneath, and I could realize that the world does not in fact change itself rapidly from lovely to awful depending on the day, the month, the weather, the moon.

But no. The day dawns and it is as though the night never was. The spring comes, and I can’t imagine why anybody would ever have wanted to wear that awful scratchy turtleneck sweater for four months straight. A raincloud crosses my path, and suddenly any hope of hope is snuffed straight out.

This winter’s weather seemed perfectly mild to our little family, particularly in contrast to the snowmageddon stories we had been hearing from back home. But according to several of our trusted local sources, this has been the worst winter in the south of France that anyone could remember. Apparently they mean by this we had to wear our coats most days, that the blue Provençal sky was grey three out of four days, and that there was way more rain than usual. Like maybe once a week, I guess. There was also an eight-minute hailstorm last week, just after several glorious hours of sunshine during the market.

These local sources even went so far as to apologize for the low mood of the place and its people; apparently the frowns this winter have been more dismal than usual, so we shouldn’t imagine this is how things usually are. I found this admission touching in a way, as I had been so accustomed to a general French indifference to my presence. It was as though now, just as we’re scheduling our return flight for June, they suddenly thought it might be nice to welcome us into the fold.

Anyway, all that said, here we are at the start of March, and today was the first vrai beau jour: warm and beautiful all day. The extra minutes of sunshine each day are gradually shoving the chill out the door; but it seems to be a particularly stubborn guest who has nowhere else to go. I still wore a coat to cut the chill of the wind, but the thermometer had no trouble climbing up into the high teens, (which in celcius is the sweet spot that jostles your tired winter bones, telling them to wake up, dammit: for this is spring.)

A week ago, when I went out to pick thyme to grind up and smear on the pork chops, it was there all right, all along the road, but scrubby and dried-up from the long winter. Today, each tiny woody branch had sprung tender new leaves. When I crushed them between my fingers, they released a smell that put the dried, bottled herb in our kitchen to deep shame. There are flowers in the garden already doing their thing, just two and a half months since the last roses of late winter had to give up the ghost. Down the lane towards school, the enormous junipers are pushing new growth right out on top of the old, turning the big trees an impossibly beautiful bluegreen. Big black bumblebees are once again drunk with desire and nectar on the fragrant white blossoms just outside our door.

The alarm went off at six today to shoo us out into that new spring world. When I opened my eyes, it as as though somebody had already turned on a light.: the full moon shone straight into our bedroom window, down onto our faces. The night had been windy, dropping its distant-thunder grumblings into our chimney. Orion fixed itself firmly in place while the leaves on the trees whipped themselves around. The wind here seems to serve mainly to blow away clouds and bad weather, and overnight it had done its job.

It was early, but Launa’s taxi service had some serious traveling to do, tracing out a great big triangle between Aups, Aix, and Nice. First I would drop Bill at the Aix TGV so he could begin his trek to Morocco, then draw the base of a triangle by screaming over to Nice in time for Mom and Dad’s 10 AM plane from Heathrow. I did the figurative screaming (driving as fast as was legal) while Grace and Abigail did the literal screaming, making a game of beating on one another for fun in the way of every bored pair of siblings that has ever been dragged along on a car trip.

If we were lucky, the trains and planes would run on time, and we’d be home for late lunch, but there were many kilometers of countryside to cover. We left the house just before dawn, with that heavy moon dropping down below the hill to the West. We’d head Southwest, watching it grow larger as it dipped closer to the hills. The sun was creeping up behind us, gradually spreading color – mostly pink, really – across the landscape.

The drive between here and the A8 on the way to Aix is one of the more beautiful trips we get to take on a regular basis. First you speed down the straight road out of Aups. Then wind past a few sturdy old chateaus – now wineries – just outside of Sillans-la-Cascade.

A bit past that is a forest with trees covered in lacy green moss. The moss makes the trees look all gothic and romantic, like something out of a swamp in the old south.

This little forest would have been significantly more picturesque had there not been a little red car upended in among the trees, like a matchbox car some boy had smashed into something then left behind. This patch of woods, as pretty as it is, sports several of those improvised roadside memorials, flowers lashed to the tree where somebody must have crashed. You never can really forget here in France how scary the roads really are, and apparently they get scarier when there are trees there you could hit.

The woods fall away, and endless vineyards and farms spread themselves over the low hills. Someday soon somebody will plow under the bright green cover crop they’ve planted during the winter, and sow millions of sunflower seeds in these fields. They will grow tall once we’re already gone, and some other tourist will have to stop and take their picture. The grapevines will almost certainly bust out in shoots and leaves any minute now, but we’ll be back home before a single grape is harvested.

The landscape opens up, the hills turning into to real mountains as you take the last drop down into the valley towards the sea.

While I drove, the moon played hide and seek with us. It was funny, as though I could move time backwards and forwards by driving up, down, and around the turns.

Each time we dipped down, the moon would appear to set quickly below the horizon. And then, as we rose up again, it would rise back up. It was shining like blazes, as the sun wasn’t yet up over the eastern hills. Then, just as we drove into the big open bowl above St. Maximin, liquid golden sunlight started to color the tops of the mountains. The moon took its cue for a really big finish, and as we drove down a long gradual slope towards the A8, it puffed itself up to its fullest size, then finally settled down for good directly between two sharp peaks of the ridge of mountains to our southeast. It was as sad to go as the sun was happy to rise.

As I drove, I realized this changing of the guard in the sky was a great pathetic fallacy sort of allegory for our own little family’s travels on this particular day. As one light set below the horizon, and another rose up to take its place, I would put the moony moon on the train, then hightail it over to let a a happy new light take its turn in lighting our skies. We were all pretty desperately sad to see Bill go, and all fleetingly wished we had had the courage to plan to go with him. But at the same time, we were happy to have real live grandparents arriving for a few weeks’ visit.

Once the moon disappeared, it would be as though the night had never been. In reality, it would go off to light some other beautiful landscape. And then, soon enough, we’d come to the sunset, and the moon would come back our way.

These days, we’re always on the cusp of change, driven by the slow turning of our part of the sky towards the sun, and the growing plants all around. Even our appetites are changing with the seasons. We don’t feel much like stuffing ourselves with heavy dishes anymore, and I keep finding myself pulled into the fish market for something light and salty. Grace has started working her way through the dessert section of the cool French cookbook Jessica gave us. While last week, she made a heavy, sticky, gooey crème brulée, this week it was cream puffs. To die for.

As the girls and I sped along the A8, we passed huge big puffs of blooming trees. The girls almost gasped at the flowers – either cherry or apple blossoms, I guessed. Coming into Nice, the roadsides were lined with trees covered in muppet-like fluffs of yellow flowers (I have yet to go online to figure out what sort.) But far up behind the first row of hills were the white peaks of the Alps, still completely covered in snow.

Tomorrow calls for rain, and I’m sure the sky will fall in heavy grey sheets. It will be as though the sunny day never existed, and we’ll mope through the sodden day, drinking tea and playing Monopoly to wait out the rain. We’ll miss Bill, we’ll enjoy Nona and Pops, and maybe strike out for a museum here or there to try to learn something.

But today was glorious. A long walk along the terraces of olives. A few hours spent reading in the sun. Cream puffs and cheese souffle, both light and full of air. A full moon setting and a golden sun rising. A day I’ll try hard not to forget when the cold rain returns.

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