Nights in Vic – impressions of life in a French village

Sometimes I wake in the dead of night and hear a distant roar like a plane or the rumble of thunder. In my sleepy state, I have often thought I heard the crash of ocean waves, or perhaps the blasting of artillery. But it is the wind, gathering speed and power as it rolls off the mountains and over the plains. Shutters begin to rattle, windows and doors slam shut, trees sigh and moan. The coming onslaught goes on for days as the mistral batters the air and sweeps the clouds across the sky. The air cools, the humidity vanishes, the light is transformed.

When at last the wind drops the night air is pierced by the strange unworldly call of a bird, a soft whoop that punctuates the stillness, reminding me of India. It was some time before I learned that this was the cry of the small owl perched in the tall trees in the neighbours’ garden, the same trees that have grown up inexorably and blocked our once panoramic view of the mountains in the distance. That first summer, I was reminded again of India by the sweet stench of the still open sewers. Now, after twenty-five years of ever-deferred promises, the village has modern sewage and those smells have been banished. Instead a sickly odour occasionally wafts up through the pipes in the bathroom, reminding me of the old days, before the sewage, when every storm would unleash a rich bounty of perfumes. If I stand at the front door when the wind blows from the south, I can smell fennel and thyme, damp earth. Rain is falling somewhere far off to the south. After the storm the mistral will blow.

In summer, the nights are short, the air soft and still. Windows and doors are thrown open and people stay out late in the velvet darkness. The screeching of cicadas is replaced by the sound of voices rising and falling on the night air, the discreet whispers of elegant guests at a party on our neighbour’s roof terrace, the chink of glasses, knives and forks scraping on plates as the darkness thickens. Her soirées are always held under the stars, by candlelight, the voices hushed. Across the way, the Americans laugh raucously, shouting in animated voices, hooting and shrieking. Some nights I hear the strumming of an acoustic guitar, the flamenco rhythms hammered out, the wailing voice of a visiting singer echoing the cries of the cats that roam the village. Or else there is silence, the welcome blanket of silence, punctuated now and then by the whine of a mosquito. And all night long the comforting swoosh of the fan at my feet, moving the heavy summer night air and lulling me to sleep.

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