“This is just like the summers of my childhood,” a friend who was born in this region said the other day, lifting her face up to the sun.
“Il faisait si chaud que le goudron fondait sous vos pieds [It used to be so hot that the tar was melting under your feet].“
So it’s not just New Zealanders who reminisce this way about endless childhood summers.
It wasn’t called anything as exotic as le goudron fondu where I grew up, but on those hot, cloudless days I was forever scanning the road to find tar just soft enough to form bubbles, but not so melted as to stick to your toes. Pause to savour the moment, then press lightly on the bubble until you feel a pop and a satisfying warm squelch under your toe.
All the time in the world. And no traffic apparently.
Hot hair, hot back, bare feet, the screech of cicadas, the smell of scorching grass and nothing much to do.
Who would have thought the pleasures of a long, hot summer would be the same in South Taranaki as they are in the South of France?
That’s childhood, I guess, and the countryside, and the school holidays.
Will our children always remember this endless summer in Provence?
The canicule (heat wave) started in early June and it has not let up for more than a day or two at a time. It is close to 40 degrees C most days.
Last summer the temperature seldom rose above the mid twenties. Locals grumbled about the cold, but we thought the weather was lovely and were full of energy for travelling, hiking and exploring.
We couldn’t understand why people had warned us that we wouldn’t be able to do much in summer here. We were unstoppable.
Now I get what people mean by a wall of heat.
It messes with your gravity.
I have aged 40 years in four weeks.
Before the canicule , I was a fit person. Who even noticed there were stairs between the lounge and the bedrooms? I flew up there.
Now, the 16 steps between all the way down here and all the way up there have warped and stretched.
Everest is in the building. I don’t have Hilary’s fortitude. I can’t be arsed knocking the the bastard off. I want to find a way around.
I half-heartedly send children to fetch things. They groan. I wave my wrist at them feebly. They shrug.
Several times I have had to use my hands to drag my body up those stairs.
Not complaining. I’m definitely not complaining. But people who are complaining are saying poetic things like : “C’est insupportable, c’est penible, c’est fatiguant.”
One friend has an adorable complaint about the cicadas.
“They are supposed to be an afternoon thing, when you wake up from a nap and it’s super-hot. They are not supposed to be making that racket in the middle of the night. I can’t sleep!”
If you are to get any sleep, you need to take action.
Bedroom windows and shutters must be closed all day and opened to the air only around 9pm when the air temperature finally drops to under 30 degrees.
If you don’t have air conditioning, and most people here don’t, electric fans are a godsend if you can find them. There is a queue each morning outside the electrical shop and the daily delivery is sold out by 10.
Going to bed early is pointless.
If you had told me last year that our seven and nine-year-olds would be regularly still wide awake at 11pm or midnight I would have thought you were mad, or Swedish.
Now it’s the norm.
I finally understand why there is such an enormous pool in the garden here.
Last year I thought it was ridiculously big because it never warmed up and no one wanted to swim except for Sabbatical Man who is determined and Medium, whose thermostat is faulty.
Now, we can’t stay out of it. The water temperature is edging ever-closer to 30 degrees.
We have been lazy hosts.
Instead of whipping our visitors around all our favourite spots, we have strongly recommended that that they either give our slothful routine a try or let us borrow their kids for playmates and head out into the furnace to explore markets and villages on their own.
The best days start in bed with a book. Large is currently lost in Skullduggery Pleasant’s skeleton detective capers, Medium is reading Harry Potter, Small is back into his Super-fudge series. I’m in St Malo during the war with All the Light You Cannot See and Sabbatical Man is reading about salt.
When hunger bites, it’s time for a mid-morning graze on the year’s best local fruit – grapes, nectarines, peaches, rockmelon and apricots with creamy yoghurt, fresh walnuts and muesli. If we have visitors we’ll pick up warm pain au chocolat and croissants.
After breakfast nothing much happens: a swim, a bombing competition, a game of Marco Polo, a lie in the sun and then in the shade.
Our boys, who have been sunblocked, covered-up and shaded their entire lives, stretch out on the concrete in the blazing sun after their swims: pigeon-toed, togs steaming, cheeks pressed into the concrete, squinting into the glare to watch the march of ants under their noses.
It makes Sabbatical Man smile to see his boys splatted about the pool like this, because he treasures this memory from his own childhood. I tell myself that the sun is nowhere near as harsh in this hemisphere, and it’s not. The boys overheat and move into the shade before they burn.
Lunch is around 2pm – hot tomatoes and lettuce from Sabbatical Man’s potager, cheese and cold meats from the fridge. Fresh baguettes. A large jug of iced water. Olive oil from Les Baux, salt from the Camargue, pepper in an olive-wood grinder. If there are visitors, there will be a bottle of Daumas Gassac rosé frizzante on the table.
The boys raid the fridge for the bits and bobs they fancy. Large likes green olives and dried sausage, Medium reaches for the artichoke and garlic spread and the red pesto from the market. Small puts out the lavender honey and peanut butter.
It takes an age to clear up from lunch, those endless 10 paces from the patio to the kitchen, food to be put away and dishes done before the flies take over. Then everyone needs a swim.
Dinner tends to be around 9pm – salad, barbecued meat and boiled new potatoes. The boys bring all the candles outside.
Bed is sometime after dark, which is late.
We do something active and/or adventurous only once or twice week at the moment, which is not often for us.
It’s not just the weather forcing me to slow down and get into the groove of this summer.
If we ever have another summer in Provence I am sure it will be wonderful.
We won’t be sharing it with a 12 year old Large, a nine year old Medium and a seven year old Small.
We won’t be hanging out with most of the lovely people we have met here, many of whom are living here temporarily.
We won’t be living in this crumbling but beautiful old mas with a woodland garden, neglected fruit and nut trees , grape vines run wild and crops of fruit and vegetables in the fields all around us. We won’t live next door to a farmer who delivers sun-warmed, fresh-picked rockmelons to our door.
The temperature dared to dip under 30 degrees yesterday and last night it rained. My heart sank. Is it over? I am already reminiscing, dammit. I can’t help myself.
“Don’t grieve for leaving before you have left,” a friend warned me a couple of months ago. She knew. She had been given the same advice by a friend who was back home and wishing she hadn’t thought about leaving quite so much before she had actually left.
Such sound advice.
A quick check of the weather report has confirmed that the canicule will be back on Tuesday.
We are still here.
Still enjoying every day of an old-fashioned summer in Provence.