No one but Night, with tears on her dark face,
Watches beside me in this windy place.
~Edna St. Vincent Millay
Recently, we wrote of the influence of weather on architecture and how construction yields to respect the forces of nature that cannot be escaped. The most renowned weather phenomenon in southern France gives rise to all sorts of stories, beliefs and yes – facts. The Mistral wind flows forcefully from the Massif Central down the Rhone Valley to the Mediterranean, taking on different personalities according to the season.
The folks of the Provençal region lay claim to all types of misery that can be attributed to the wicked wind. Dejection and depression precede the Mistral; and headaches and bad tempers sweep over the land, as the daunting wind plays havoc. Coming from the Occitan word for “master”, the Mistral masters the populace, just as it mastered Jean de Florette, making him physically and emotionally unbalanced in Marcel Pagnol’s famous book. Local mothers will tell you that the wind incites restlessness in children and even in pets!
Occasionally in Florida, we will have howling days; when the rain and wind combine to deliver a distinct message – forget all else and yield to the weather. And that, it seems, is the effect of the Mistral, when day after day of the bone-chilling winds of winter claim complete attention. Residents weigh roof tiles with stones and plant trees to the North to protect their soil. They wrap pipes to prevent freezing, bend to the wind on the way to the market, and lather lotions on parched skin.
Also called ‘le vent du fada’ (“the idiot wind”), the weather pattern takes on two forms – the Mistral Blanc and the Mistral Noir. Brilliant blue skies with dry, sunny weather characterize the “White Wind”, as it seems to cleanse and dry the air. Thus, the white wind clears the air and acts as artistic inspiration to all of those painters, who seek the crisp light of the Provencal countryside. But the Black Wind is not so fondly considered, as rain and dark clouds accompany The Mistral Noir.
The hot, dry winds of the summer Mistral pose dangerous conditions for Provence, as they accelerate forest fires. Devastating fires between 1979 and 2005 have brought about many changes in the land and in forestry management. Public awareness, particularly for the many tourists who visit Provence, is helping to curb the problem, but too often the French have discovered malicious arson to be the cause of the fires.
The split personalities of The Mistral undoubtedly will continue to equally inspire and frustrate; yet we can’t change the weather, can we? There are days, when I would trade a bright Florida day for the mystique of the Mistral in Provence.
And I think I just heard a giant “Pffffffft” from the people of Provence – “Easy for YOU to say!”