It’s been a common response, whenever I’ve asked people whether they’ve experienced le mistral, to hear: I’ve read about it. That’s what I would say, too: in textbooks, traveler’s guides, Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. One of the most colorful descriptions is this one, from Julia Child’s delectable memoir, My Life in France:
“WHOOOOSH! As we detrained in Marseille, we were almost swept off our feet by a piercingly cold, dusty, savage wind that howled out of Siberia, across the Alps, along the Rhône Valley and down our necks. Boxes, barrels, crates, garbage, and newspapers sailed through the air and banged up against houses. The incessant wind tore away roof tiles, blew down chimneys, and ripped shutters off their hinges. The sea in the Old Port was sloshing and foaming, as hundred-foot-high walls of spume writhed across the harbor. Boats were huddled together like sheep; the masts of the fishing fleet leaned way over, and the rigging moaned like a train whistle. Paul and I had to squint and hunch our shoulders against the blast, and we barely made our way along the quay. When we finally reached home, we found that the windows of our apartment, six floors above the street, were completely frosted over with salt from the sea spray.
“This was our first true mistral, the notorious windstorm, and it was so exhilarating it was hard to think straight. It was as if we were under bombardment.
“The next day there was no wind at all. It was unbelievable. Our necks and ears were still black from the sideways-flying dirt. At the end of the harbor, guys with big rakes skimmed the water to clear away great mounds of seaweed, planks, oranges, and other flotsam piled up there. We kept bracing ourselves for a new onslaught – the way, after a picnic full of ants, you feel them crawling up your leg even when they aren’t there.”
Eavesdropping is a great way to study a language, and when we were on the TGV, training from Lyon down to Marseille, there was a group of men in business suits sitting nearby. I tuned in and out of their conversation, and I couldn’t help overhearing the word mistral said three or four times during the short train trip. I could tell the wind was blowing, but when you’re traveling at 194 kilometres an hour, it’s difficult to know what’s the wind and what’s just your own blurry perception of the world outside. When we stepped off the train, however, I felt much like Julia in her description above.
Fighting my way against the wind, with the Vieux Port and Notre Dame de la Garde at my back.
Later Julia writes about another time when “a mistral roared up. The sky was brilliantly clear, but the temperatures suddenly dropped from about a hundred degrees to the mid-sixties, and a crazy howling wind buffeted the city all day and night. Yaaaah! Whoooeeeeoooowh! The air was filled with whirling dust and sea spray again, and the wind ripped and smashed and flattened things with an insane force. …
“One afternoon, Paul and I fought our way through the gale to a rugged point of land to watch the mistral beat the sea into foamy whitecaps. It was exhilarating but exhausting. The wind ripped open the hem of my skirt; then it untied Paul’s necktie, flipped his trouser cuffs inside out, and turned his hair absolutely white with sea salt.”
It may be difficult to tell from these photos, but le mistral is a magical, mind bending, communication flustering, madness inducing, fierceness. It really did feel like it might rip the clothes off our backs. I could barely hear anything apart from the constant roaring of the wind, and it seemed like no one could understand me when I spoke. I became flustered as we sat down for a drink at a bar beside the old port. The wind whipped around tables and chairs, slashing through shirts and scarves and sending napkins and glasses flying. The locals seemed to be taking it all in stride, so that’s what we tried to do. When the server brought us two of everything we ordered, I shouted at Jeremy over the roar, Why doesn’t anyone understand me today?! Ever cool and level headed, he replied: I think they understood you fine; according to that sign over there, it’s two for one happy hour!
The next morning it was bright and calm, the sea still. We were having breakfast in the hotel when the cute, friendly concierge came to our table to give us information about a boat we had hired to take us out to see the Calanques. I asked him about the previous day’s weather, and whether or not it had just been particularly windy. He looked at me with grave sincerity and said mais non, monsieur, THAT was the mistral.