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Monday, April 16, 2012

Let's talk weather.

When I mention southern France, what comes to your mind? - I know what comes to mine, still, after all these years.

  1. Turquoise seawater
  2. Rocky or sandy beaches with olive trees gently swaying in a light breeze
  3. Light, sand-stone villas surrounded by lemon and olive groves
  4. Endless, fragrant lavender fields
  5. Endless, fragrant vineyards
  6. Soft, pink light
  7. Sun, not too hot but a pleasant sun that gives you an effortless biscuit tan
  8. A sleepy town square, closed shutters and ice-cold Pastis
  9. A warm, welcome mist of seasonal rain only a few days a year
  10. Leathery, bronzed farmers with fresh produce and a rotund but charming local accent
  11. ... and above all - balmy, embracing warmth that makes you forget about dreary north-European winters featuring sleet, snow and slippery roads.
Even now, knowing what I know, this is what comes to mind when I hear the words 'southern France'. This list comes to mind, to vanish immediately, replaced with other phenomena I've become accustomed to, recently. 

For example - those long, slim, sausage-like pillows of gaudy prints or dirty colors. Ever seen one of those? I used to wonder what they were used for. First thing that popped into my mind, having seen how the French often sleep on long, thick, sausage-like pillows was that these slim versions were just kiddy-versions of these truly uncomfortable bed accessories. But, to my surprise, I discovered these pillows are ingeniously used to block the mouse-size windy gaps under every front door when winter moves in on southern France. Oh yes. There is winter in southern France, and I've never been as cold in my native Finland as I've been here. Let me tell you how that is possible.

A really touching real-life story took place this very winter. We had just moved into a 13th-century-monastery-school of a house in the middle of a southern-French medieval village. Autumn had been fabulous; soft, sunny days gone by just picking figs and grapes straight off of branches, picnics and long walks. I hadn't bought a single woolen sweater, for what use could that have. Then came january, and with it the harshest winter weather 'in living memory', or so I was told by locals. A months worth of sub-zero temperatures, snow, permafrost and a hell of a north wind, bringing me its best wishes from Finland (that, incidentally, suffered under temperatures of -40° at the time). I had heard locals brag how 'nothing penetrates our meter-thick stone walls', but what else are stone walls but a safe haven for cellar-temperatures? These meter-thick walls guaranteed a permanent damp and moldy ten degrees within the house, no matter what. 

Don't we have heating? Well, yes we do. But not the kind of heating that was built for -15°c, let alone a month of frost. Our electricity snapped off every time we'd fire up all our radiators simultaneously, there simply wasn't enough power to keep them going. And the fireplace? Oh, yes, we have a wonderful, pre-Revolution stone fireplace! The problem was, we had just moved in, it hadn't been used for years, and was badly in need of a chimney sweep. And since this was the coldest winter in living memory, chimney men were having the busiest time of their lives. We were told one could stop by, say, in a month.

So, what did we do during that month? We managed to keep our bedrooms close to around +16°c and slept with extra blankets, no big deal. Our main issue was downstairs. That huge salon I had fallen in love with had to remain closed, its massive windows let the wind in through invisible gaps - I knew that could be arranged, I'd have to purchase those long slim pillows sooner or later. But we had to use our kitchen, didn't we. And the kitchen was the coldest place in the house. It was too low of a temperature to mature a good Roquefort cheese in our kitchen, for Roquefort requires a steady ten degrees to work its magic. Our kitchen, on the other hand, had the steady temperature of +4°c. To cook, I'd wear my dad's old wool sweater on top of another sweater, or on a lazier morning I'd just throw on my winter coat. 

My feet were getting the torture of a lifetime, though. A Finn like me knows sub-zero temperatures - you have to keep your feet warm at all cost. So I'd put on my thickest, grayest norwegian fisherman's wool socks and squeeze them into my felt slippers. By then, they were just too tightly packed and I couldn't feel my feet. So I had to choose, slippers or wool socks. I tried it both ways - my feet remained numb. I'd end up wearing leather boots in the house, leather boots were the thickest footwear I'd ever needed during my winters in southern France. In the end, I had to take those off and rub my feet because the cold was unbearable. As you may guess, this did not end well. As weeks rolled by and my feet started itching and swelling, I went to see the doctor, thinking that along with the cold I was punished with the worst case of toe fungus imaginable. He agreed with me and ordered some cream, what else was there to do. Except that the cream made my feet colder than ever, and when they swelled up some more and started turning a purplish shade of violet, I went to see the good man again. This time he got the point. My feet were frozen, he explained. Strangely enough, I believed the man. Although I had never frozen my feet during my winters in the northernmost corner of Europe, I had actually come to southern France to experience freezing my toes.

By mid-february, the temperatures started turning tolerable again. And, miraculously, the chimney man was finally free to fix our fireplace! By now, we had bought a wood stove that did the trick fast enough, we could use our medieval salon again. I slowly abandoned my winter coat. My feet, although blackened and shriveled, had regained feeling. Flowers and swallows returned to southern France. Life was beautiful again. 

Then, this week, a sudden drop to +6°c and a wicked north wind they call Mistral. Welcome to southern France.