Before I'd traveled to Provence I'd heard of course of the mistral, the wickedly strong wind that comes up suddenly and then blows and blows and blows for days on end. I was a little skeptical. How was this possible? And this happens routinely, like getting a heavy rain shower in Arkansas in May? In fact, yes. It's such an ordinary part of life in Provence that no one thinks to say much about it. Van Gogh's only reference to the mistral is when he noted in one of his letters that he was so determined to finish a painting that once he drove the legs of his easel into the ground, strapped the canvas in place, and kept on painting in spite of the wind. I recreate this scene in my novel. I couldn't not do so, after having traveled to the same territory and experienced the same wind. But after living through a mistral or three, it's awfully hard to imagine Van Gogh could have completed that painting, at least to his satisfaction. (He doesn't in my novel.) The mistral blows so hard that once, riding on a bike, I had to get off and push the thing, because simple pedalling became too hard and too slow. I was almost literally going nowhere. On my trip last May I set off on a morning run in the face of a (unusually brief, as it turned out) mistral and could barely move forward against the force of the wind. (It lessened a bit when I turned onto a side road.) My wife has recounted stories of visiting the Arles craft market during a mistral and see all sorts of boxes and items cartwheeling away from vendors' tables.
Having done our French tours always in late spring or summer, we haven't faced the numbing bitterness of a winter mistral. I can only imagine how dispiriting it must be for residents to wait those out. Summer mistrals are a mixed blessing. One hand it knocks the top off the southern heat. (Although compared to summers in Arkansas or Louisiana, I've always found the supposedly scorching temperatures of the south of France way overstated.) It's also fascinating to watch the landscape of this rural, agricultural region sway in the wind for days. And for my wife there is no more special pleasure to be had in France than to lie in the comfort and security of our bed and listen to the mistral howl outside.
On our first trip to Provence, in 2005, we stayed for two weeks and faced one mistral in the middle of the trip. It lasted three or four days at full strength and then quickly leaked away. We woke up one morning, and it was over. On our second trip--a quick stopover not quite one week long near the end of my wife's research trip to England in 2006--the mistral met us the second we stepped off the plane in Nimes. In London, we had been watching the weather reports from Provence and realized a mistral had begun. Given that it was drizzly and terribly cool in London, this at the end of May, a mistral seemed a small price to pay for some Provencal sunshine. Once we'd arrived, however, I began to become impatient for the mistral to pass. We would only be there for a week, after all. It lingered, however, for at least four days, holding back the summery heat that I was actually looking forward to. But when it cleared we had a blessedly warm couple days before returning to England. On my last trip, a year ago, there was only the single, brief mistral (i.e., it lasted a couple days) though I spent five full weeks, and my family two, in the country. That's either a lucky or unlucky development, depending on how you look at it. Most would count it as lucky, I think. But I know that by the time we left, my wife was missing the mistral.