Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Le Vent Rend Fou

Translation: The wind makes you crazy

Here in Provence, we are treated periodically to the crazy wind that comes in from the north/northwest, called the Mistral. It can blow for one day or many and after several days of the constant onslaught, it just plain wears you out... or makes you nuts. After trying to navigate one particularly nasty mistral in Isle sur la Sorgue, I ended up with vertigo for several hours afterward and really thought I was going bonkers until someone assured me that this feeling is common. Local lore says that if the wind lasts for more than one day, it will last three. If it continues longer than three, it will last six. After that it's a nine-dayer. By the time we get to nine days, which I've never experienced, everyone in Provence would be completely off their rocker and the psych wards would be overflowing, I'm sure.

Here in Aix en Provence we are partially protected from the wind because we are situated in a valley. Don't get me wrong, we get the Mistral, but in Arles or Avignon, for instance,  it can be far worse. If you're the economical type, there you can treat yourself to a free, full facial exfoliation simply by situating yourself properly during the mistral and its ensuing blowing sand.

The mistral wind has truly moulded the landscape of this region with its ferocity. In many places in Provence our trees grow at a slant because of the wind's force. Growers anchor their fruit trees on 3 sides to guard against toppling, and farmers plant rows of Cypress around their fields to protect against its violence. Traditional Provencal architecture has also taken the wind into account. Farm houses, particularly in the Camargue, are built facing south with very few or no windows on the north wall, and our bell towers are often fashioned out of lacy iron so the wind can blow through them rather than blow them over.

Yes, the Mistral can be a bad thing. In the summer when the landscape is hot and dry, it can pick up a spark and turn it into a ferocious and devastating fire in minutes. I was having dinner near Martigue one night last summer as one of these balls of fire roared past us. Everybody told me not to worry because the wind would move it south so fast it wouldn't touch us. They were right, it didn't, but an entire town  that was unfortunate enough to be in its path had to be evacuated. And the Mistral can turn a perfectly warm, inviting Mediterranean sea into an ice bath overnight with no thought at all for anyone's weekend beach plans.

There are good things about the Mistral however. The mistral is precisely the reason that Provence is Provence. First and most importantly, it helps us grow great grapes! But also, this cold, dry wind generally blows away the clouds and clears the air giving us the exceptional Proven├žal light that so many painters have spent decades trying to capture on canvas. Though the winds generally come in winter or spring, on a hot summer day a mistral can drastically change the temperature and the humidity in all of 5 minutes. The first time I felt this I was sure I was going to see a major tornado blowing down the Cours Mirabeau (a natural thought from one born in "Tornado Alley") and I got out my video camera in anticipation.

And the Mistral brings gifts. I have received several pots, laundry baskets and mop buckets that have blown in from elsewhere, as well as some completely useless things like (ick) various and sundry socks and underwear.

Several weeks ago after a particularly maniacal three day mistral, I opened my terrace door and found this.

Yes, a another gift from the Wind Gods. The barbecue grill had blown in from somebody else's terrace and landed smack dab in the middle of my terrace, on its feet and in perfect working order (I did put the grill on straight for the photo). The mistral also brought a gift for Arthur-the-Cat. You can just see his ears peaking up from that cozy comforter that landed so conveniently on his chair and which he accepted as if it were his due. Of course Monsieur Mistral also brought all the other debris that is laying on the terrace and I'm finally getting around to cleaning it up today so I can do the planting.

I don't need this present since I already have a little one that is just the right size for me and my little terrace but I'm leaving it exactly where it landed, at least for a little while.  I'm thinking that the next wind might drop a couple of steaks or some nice, fat sausages directly on the grill. Come to think of it, I'd better get the fire laid in advance for this great moment. 

And if I'm really lucky, or unlucky depending on where I'm sitting at the time, this might blow in as well.

The guy above and behind me stores his bike on the roof. There is another one on the roof above that. If the Wind Gods stay with me, my terrace should be their direct target. 

But now that I look at this photo, I realize that my neighbor's lush forest of pot plants has disappeared. Pouf! Gone with the wind. Well shitballs, I wonder who got those?


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Another Day, Another Dollar

It's been 3 weeks since I arrived back on my doorstep and its subsequent 4 flights of stairs here in Aix en Provence.  Three weeks in which I've seemed to do nothing but sleep. Okay, the first week I had visitors so sleep wasn't an option but these last two I've been behaving like a teenager. Snooze till 11…3 hour nap….sleep till 9…2 hour nap.  I've spent several full days enrobed in my deliciously enormous, Memorial High School Baseball hoodie and my plaid flannel pajama bottoms. No exit…no reason to. It's been lovely.

I meant to come home in January. But then this happened.

Yes, my sister and I bought another house. Isn't it cute?

As I've mentioned before, my biggest dilemma in France is that I don't have the right to work. I'm a resident yes, but I cannot work. The only way that I've found to solve this is to get hitched and…um…well…I've already done my time. I can receive the right to work (and pay taxes in France) in another year but truthfully, my chances of getting hired here are dismal to none. The French system of employment is pretty linear. Employers want a CV (resume) that shows your field of study and that you've worked in that field. And that's where they want you to stay. Not a lot of coloring outside of the lines here. And to top it off, they simply don't seem to hire older workers. There is a very high unemployment rate for those over 50 and it doesn't look to be changing soon. So, a middle-aged woman who speaks French like a child with a mid-western accent to boot, who has a television journalism degree but hasn't been on camera for 30 years, but who has done just about everything else and can handle just about every situation thrown at her, is not a good prospect. Tant pis pour eux! Too bad for them.

But this situation obviously poses some big ol' problems. I have to earn my money in the states, which in turn poses a problem since I'm not there. Most of the time. So this time home, as the last time, my sissie and I bought a house to redo and rent. In fact, since this is our second, we ended up forming a business and not only do I now know how to tile a bathroom, cut copper pipe, rip a board and install a ceiling,  I also have to learn to be an accountant (what the hell is double-entry bookkeeping anyway?) and a business manager. Holy Heat Duct Batman, doesn't life just keep getting more interesting?

The sale was delayed and delayed and in the end we had 30 days to turn over the house before I had to leave.  The day we signed the papers, we were at the house in our well-used work clothes (winter models this time) and back at it again. Twelve to fifteen hours a day we worked. On the days she had to work at the fire station, I joined her there in the evenings where she has cable, and we watched DIY television, which is how I learned to cut copper pipe, by the way! My work clothes left my body in a heap each night and were pulled back up again very early each morning. And we had a ball. Seriously.

 I learned that 3 days without a toilet on-site is not a problem whatsoever.

This should say "pee bucket" but it was -15 degrees and the marker didn't want to work.

She learned that her new favorite tool is a grout mixer that attaches to the drill.

 I learned that mine is a tile saw.

We learned that you can, in fact, tile over old mastic…no matter what anyone says. Is this not the most magnificent, though elementary, tile job you've ever seen?

We learned that the best way to order plumbing parts is to just take a picture of the damned thing before you go to the hardware store. 

"I'll have one of these please!"

And this project brought home what we already knew. Your team is the most important thing!

So these are some of the before and afters.

I think we were destined to do this sort of work together. After all, we have matching roto zips!

On our last day, after we hung our sign and gotten ready for our party (of course we had a party there. Every house needs to be baptised!), we cracked a beer in the frozen garage and congratulated ourselves. And we both got all sad. Not because it was time for me to go but because this work is way too much fun and so rewarding. We not only were so much better at it this time, but we realized that the first house and our ability to work together was not a fluke. We're good at it!

We are "Sisters Saving Houses"
And we gotta get ourselves another one. Quick.

But first I've got to get out of my bathrobe and enjoy the life I'm working so hard to keep.

Happy Spring my friends,