We drove to the Canal du Midi to do some serious biking together, but I knew I would never keep up. Padmasini's manic enthusiasm and Celena's otherworldly energy make them perfect biking partners and it is my special role to trail behind as their happy but hopeless side-kick. I watched them speed into the distance in a cloud of dust and then got down to business taking photos of all things autumny. I knew I was being rewarded for my lethargy when I saw these huge fungi, each bigger than a serving dish.
I was trying not to keep stopping; when you are posing as a proper biker you cannot have a family with small children on their first bikes repeatedly overtaking you, as was happening to me, but in the end I decided that getting these photos was worth the humiliation. The habit of jumping on and off my bike can probably be blamed on Royal Mail, Cambridge; I did one year sorting letters on night shift and another doing deliveries in the morning. Posties have to jump on and off their bikes hundreds of times each day, and what is a real effort at first soon becomes second nature, as does wearing shorts in the snow and cornering passers-by to lecture them on any topic that occurs to you. You can get really fit as a postie, and in fact many of them are ex-army, ex-navy guys or serious runners who want to be paid for getting several hours exercise a day. The level of machismo there can be a bit wearing and you have to filter out 90% of their conversation if you are female, but they are a cheerful lot, by and large, especially the older guys on night shift who have lots of stories and can be very entertaining. Sadly, I don't remember many of their stories as night-work doesn't suit me and I was barely awake for most of it. The only thing I vaguely recollect concerns a nice quiet guy nearing retirement age who decides that what other posties only dream about, he will accomplish; once a week he goes home ridiculously early for no apparent reason. After a time, complaints about lost letters on his walk filter through to head office, reach a critical mass and Royal Mail is forced to investigate. Somehow they are inspired to dig up his garden and they find all his undelivered letters buried there. The guy pleads depression, completely gets away with it and the story passes into legend. I wondered whether Management realised how easily the idea could occur to anyone and invented the story themselves as a preventative measure, "It's already been done, don't bother."
This is the Canal du Midi, constructed in the 17th Century, which along with the Canal de Garonne links the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and is called the Canal des Deux Mers, or the Canal of Two Seas. The previous trading route had to go all the way around Spain, so although it took nearly fifteen years to build it spared each voyager the perils of shipwreck, Spanish pirates, and seasickness. The hydraulics involved in such a long canal were way beyond the engineers of the time, who had honed their craft on fortresses, and there is an unusual story associated with the construction. Some peasant women from the Roman Baths in the Pyrenees had been hired to shift dirt from one of the canals, but their supervisors soon realised that because of the long hydraulic tradition in the Pyrenees, the women's knowledge of water-work far surpassed their own. These women then designed the canal through the mountains near Bezier, using very few locks, and built the eight-lock staircase at Fonserannes. I was really surprised to hear that their supervisors gave them the credit for this; they could easily have claimed it for themselves, as was often the case at that time.
I will never get tired of seeing so many horses everywhere. I particularly love the skewbald ones that the Americans call "pinto"; that is, a horse of any colour other than black, with white patches on it, in some cases nearly all white. My father liked to play the guitar, and I can remember him singing me this American song about a famous skewbald horse:
"Stewball was a good horse
He wore a high head
And the mane on his foretop
Was as fine as silk thread.
I rode him in England
I rode him in Spain
He never did lose, boys,
He always did gain."
I haven't heard it for thirty years or so! I suspect he got it from this Joan Baez songbook as I remember it kicking about for a bit.
Other favourites were, "Where have all the flowers gone?" and "Last night I had the strangest dream." And of course, "How many roads must a man walk down?" My parents were both complete hippies at heart, though the healthy kind rather than the other. More about them at some other point... Now is not the time to go into the upbringing that created Tom Hirons and I. A blog-entry would not suffice. An autobiographical novel would not suffice. Possibly a mini-series would suffice, if you could find a demographic that enjoyed equally Days of Our Lives and The Good Life. Let me just say that because of the wholesome nature of our household, one of my most dearly cherished dreams as a child was to persuade my mother to buy a soda-stream. For those of you who didn't grow up in Seventies England, a soda-stream is a machine with which you can make poisonous, phosphorescent fizzy drinks. You would no more have found one in our house than you would find, say, a slice of white bread, a TV or anything with sugar in it. It was actually my own fault; my mother was trying to find things that I wasn't allergic to and sugar really didn't seem to help. Strangely enough, now, after years of eating badly due to my complete lack of interest in food preparation, I am eating so well at the restaurant I work in, Tripti Kulai, that the craving for sugar has reduced and my diet is very close to what it was when I was little. The girls here are good at passing on their enthusiasm and I have been initiated, once and for all, into the noble art of cooking. They even praise my pastry! I am not worthy... Although we do deal with creme fraiche and sugar, we make sure to offer a lot of things that are without gluten, dairy or sugar, and these taste delicious too.
This vegetable patch by the cycle path reminded me of one of the gardens we had when I was little; the sea of cauliflowers and apple tree, especially. Although this looks much neater.
I realised the seasons really had changed the other night when I was woken by the sound of the wind breaking the glass in a neighbour's window. It was the Mistral, howling like an an untalented teenage band or a ferocious beast, but apparently it was only a little taster session of what we're in for later on. The custodian of my apartment treated me to a lengthy description of the upcoming weather, in French that I could barely understand but supplemented with lots of gestures. "Three hundred days of sunshine," he warned me, "but nobody tells you about the other sixty." It is going to be merely horrible, apparently, for December, but come January we will really see the Mistral kick in, with weeks of unrelenting, brain numbing and freezing wind. The only silver lining is that the Mistral blows away clouds and the sky is very clear at that time. In Provence, just next to us, the Mistral allows you to see mountains 150 kilometres away that are not normally visible at that distance. To offset this good news, there also exists a 'Mistral Noir' that brings clouds and rain... My friends tell me he is exaggerating and that Provence gets the worst of it, so now I don't know who to believe.
Here you can see a junior Mistral ruffling the plumage of a bush. I noticed that when the wind occasionally stopped, the trees and plants stayed in nearly the same position, as though they were still compelled by it's force, so they must grow up wincing in anticipation of it's arrival each year. One of my favourite books, "A Year in Provence", has this to say about the Mistral:
"We drove home, warm and well-fed, making bets on how soon we could take the first swim of the year, and feeling a smug sympathy for those poor souls in harsher climates who had to suffer real winters.
"Meanwhile, a thousand miles to the north, the wind that had started in Siberia was picking up speed for the final part of its journey. We had heard stories about the Mistral. It drove people, and animals, mad. It was an extenuating circumstance in crimes of violence. It blew for fifteen days on end, uprooting trees, overturning cars, smashing windows, tossing old ladies into the gutter, splintering telegraph poles, moaning through houses like a cold and baleful ghost, causing la grippe, domestic squabbles, absenteeism from work, toothache, migraine - every problem in Provence that couldn't be blamed on the politicians was the fault of the sacre vent which the Provencaux spoke about with a kind of masochistic pride.
"Typical Gallic exaggeration, we thought. If they had to put up with the gales that come off the English Channel and bend the rain so that it hits you in the face almost horizontally, then they might know what a real winter was like. We listened to their stories and, to humour the tellers, pretended to be impressed.
"And so we were poorly prepared when the first Mistral of the year came howling down the Rhone valley, turned left and smacked into the west side of the house with enough force to skim roof tiles into the swimming pool and rip a window that had carelessly been left open off its hinges. The temperature dropped 20 degrees in twenty-four hours. It went to zero, then six below. Readings taken in Marseilles showed a wind speed of 180 kilometres an hour. My wife was cooking in an overcoat. I was trying to type in gloves. We stopped talking about our first swim and thought wistfully about central heating."
January, A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle 1989
As I sped past this little glen it seemed to glitter with promise; the kind of place you might fall asleep and get kidnapped by fairies. They would probably be of a cheerful disposition though, and would send you on your way with nourishing food and a map to guide you; not like the 'Little Folk' (I think 'Supernatural Mafia' would be a more appropriate euphemism here) that frequent lonely Scottish moors specifically to lure unwary travellers into their own world. Imagine the trauma of breaking out of fairyland only to discover that your credit card expired a hundred years ago...
This is the road home on which I nearly caught up with Padmasini and Celana.
Extremely tempted to stop and lie down in this stuff.
Effortlessly elegant scenes like this flashed past my eyes at every moment as I breathlessly hurtled past.
Shady, wind-shaken pine trees; and as many pine cones as you could possibly want.
And the final, incontrovertible evidence of autumn; bales of hay. In Suffolk, my English home county, they make huge wheels of it, but these look a bit more manageable. Summer must have gone now... As it says in one of the Harvest Festival hymms at school:
"Roses sweet petals shed
Apples are turning red.
Summer goodbye, Summer goodbye."