The Staggering Mistral Winds of Provence
As I hauled my suitcases off the train in Marseille in mid-June, the first thing that greeted me was a staggering gust of wind.
When I came to Provence with Bryn Mawr College’s theater and literature program, I definitely hadn’t signed up for the weather. I signed up because I envisioned striding across a stage reciting lines in my leaden-tongued French, or curling up to read Dumas on the banks of the Rhone river. Yet wind is omnipresent here in the southern Provence region of France, largely because of mistrals, the strong winds that blow in from the northwest on their way down to the Mediterranean. Somehow, the feeling of that wind became intertwined with the feeling of that region for me.
It rippled across the waters of the Rhone River and pushed crumpled theater flyers down the cobblestones of the rue de la République, past all the bakeries, chic bookstores, and supermarkets.
The wind blew across the red-tiled rooftops and into my open window in the small student hostel, chilling me to the bone. It rippled across the waters of the Rhone River and pushed crumpled theater flyers down the cobblestones of the rue de la République, past all the bakeries, chic bookstores, and supermarkets. It harried me back and forth as I biked around the medieval stone walls of the city, and threatened to pry my classmates’ hats off while we were dashing to class. And, oh yes, it blew away the rainclouds too, leaving clear, sunny skies without the drawback of heat. It was sublime.
The older buildings, including the hostel and our class building, had no air conditioning; there was simply no need. The entire boxy school building was permeated with a slight chill that seeped under the window cracks. In the long afternoons spent stalking around the ground-level room of the old building in the Place de l’Horloge (“Clock Plaza”) with my classmates, practicing our short comedy about industrial decay, our French Basque instructor’s greatest concern was whether we weren’t wearing long sleeves and socks.
Not even the experience of the town’s annual theater festival, the “In” and the “Off,” went untouched. This year, the perennial strikes over actors’ wages had become so fierce that the town administration had nearly resorted to cancelling the event entirely. As a result, far fewer theatergoers flooded in from other parts of France and Europe than in past years. The wind flew freely over the heads of the few determined arrivals, past the restaurant patios where locals sat munching risotto, past the Place de l’Horloge, and around and through the massive amphitheater in the Palais des Papes (“Bishops’ Palace”) where the highest theater pieces of the “In” took place.
Nor was this phenomenon confined to Avignon, but other parts of the regions as well. In the large port town of Marseille, the skies were almost perpetually clear and sunny. At Orange, with its hills overlooking the lights of the town and its old Roman amphitheater, the chill got so strong at night that we had to wrap ourselves in two layers of hoodies.
I’m not saying to go to Provence in July just because the temperature hovers in the mid-70s with sunny skies, of course. You should go for the excellent Avignon fringe theater festival, Marseille’s range of port markets, the easy-going atmosphere, the seafood, and the calm evening nights. The wind will simply also be there, sometimes annoying though it can be at times. It’s an aspect of the mistral winds, and the mistral is an aspect of life in Provence itself.
Top Photo By Marcovdz