La Tramontane

I remember years ago hearing the Lerner and Loewe show tune They Call the Wind Maria and thinking “what a funny idea to name a wind!” Since then, I’ve come to realize that in Southern California there are the hot, wildfire-producing Santa Anas and that other strong currents of air have been given names around the world. And, well, after all, if we can label hurricanes and now even snowstorms, why not the wind? The South of France is home to two big ones: the mistral coming down the Rhone Valley from the Alps which I blogged about once from Provence and the tramontane which we’re getting to know intimately this trip.

The word tramontane itself, “across the mountains,” has been around for quite a while. And when I say “quite a while” I mean Marco Polo wrote about it in the 1200s! Other countries use the same term, or their version of it, for their own mountain currents. Our French tramontane refers to a cold, dry and sometimes violent wind. It comes down from the Pyrenees or between them and the mountains of the Massif Central. It blows through this area all year long, though not all the time. In summer it provides a welcome relief from the stifling heat. But in winter, let’s face it, it can be just plain chilling. At times it howls enough to make you wonder if the house can sustain the hurricane force or it might even wake you up at night. It’s such a part of life, though, that inhabitants are well-prepared for it and everything is pretty well anchored down.  Even the plants and trees seem to shrug it off.

Tales about the tramontane have even entered into local legend. Like the famous foehn in Switzerland, some folks think it causes moments of insanity which can be used to explain criminal behavior in court cases. Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, seems to have been a believer himself. In one of his poems he wrote that “The wind coming across the mountain will drive me crazy.” Mostly, though, it just causes mild discomfort. Like when we’re walking back from the grocery store with our hats ready to blow away and our bags which feel like kites about to take off. The plus side, of course, is that, while Languedoc-Roussillon is the windiest region of France, it’s also the sunniest. That gusty tramontane really has the ability to blow the clouds away. So that kind of trade-off, in my mind, is worth it.

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Now, don’t get too excited. I don’t have tales to tell about the fabulous luxury boutiques like Hermès and Louis Vuitton which you’d find on the Right Bank in Paris. Well, no, there is not even one department store or mall (unless they are well-hidden) in this town of fewer than 3,000 people. Not that I’m complaining. The kind of shopping I’m talking about involves groceries which is actually my favorite kind. A girl’s got her priorities and she has to eat, you know.

So, what we have here in town is a small store called Carrefour City. The “mother company” Carrefour (like its main French competitors Auchan, Casino, and Leclerc) has different levels of supermarket size, no doubt based on an area’s population. And our “City,” while small, has all of the basics and we’re very happy it’s here. On a typical grocery day, a couple of times a week, we gather up our backpack and other reusable bags (no free plastic bags handed out here) and take the 12-minute walk from le faubourg (“the suburbs”) to la ville (“the city”). We pick out our fruits and vegetables, meats, wine, and any other products we need. Clerks have started to recognize us by now as we do them. They are friendly and come to our assistance in locating things, like the day we were having a hard time finding the sauerkraut. 

Twice a week—on Sundays and Wednesdays—the marché (or farmers’ market) is set up in two adjacent parking lots downtown. It’s really a lot of fun wandering around all the stalls, looking at everything from pottery, thread and material, to tee-shirts and beach towels, to the normal food items. We have our favorite vendors here. There’s the young Maghrébin from Morocco who just has a few things to sell but is always friendly and smiling. Then we drop by to see the cheese lady who typically wears her sheep/goat hat complete with horns; we’re never disappointed in the great assortment of cheese she has! We usually stop by another fruit and vegetable man named Alain and an organic bread guy to round out our trip. So many stalls, so little time, so little energy to carry a really heavy load back home! If truth be told, there are a few people we try to avoid at the outdoor market: the nice guy selling candy-coated nuts (a bit too sugary for our taste) and the salami man whose products are very good but quite expensive. Learned that lesson the hard way!

When we’re in the mood for a bigger selection or just a change of venue, we take a short bus ride to the Intermarché in Argelès-sur-Mer. This neighboring city about three times the size of Collioure has merited a hypermarché; think Wal-Mart Superstore. The difference from Carrefour City is apparent the moment you set eyes on the place from the outside. It’s gigantic! Once you walk in, you’re amazed by the variety of products for sale. Lots of fruits and vegetables, sure, but also dishwashers, TVs, and an enormous fish counter which we always take advantage of before catching the bus for home.

One luxury item we do have in town, I cannot lie, is a shop run by Olivier Bajard. This twice-winner of the title Meilleur Ouvrier de France (“Best Worker of France”) is a dessert chef with a pastry school in nearby Perpignan. Mmmm! Aren’t we the lucky ones to be able to enjoy his pastries, ice cream, and chocolates by just taking the short walk into town! Paris has nothing on us…well, almost.

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Passages to Freedom

A couple of Christmases ago I read Kristin Hannah’s bestseller The Nightingale. If you are unfamiliar with the book, it tells the fictional story of two sisters during the Nazi Occupation of France in World War II. The younger woman and title character, Isabelle, was inspired by a real-life hero from Belgium, Andrée de Jongh. In her early twenties, after she and her father found safe houses for downed service men in Brussels, Dédée, as she was called, began helping them escape through the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. The first (and no doubt physically easiest) part of the journey for the young woman was taking the train with her charges from Brussels or Paris to the South of France. She then accompanied them through the woods, thick brush, and often snow-covered mountain peaks. And what a great job she did! Single-handedly she was responsible for leading over 115 people along the so-called Comet Line (Réseau Comète) to freedom.

Now you’d think that since I had read this novel and realized I was coming to an area bordering the Pyrenees, I’d put two and two together. Not so much. It wasn’t until we began noticing signs around Collioure and Banyuls labeled Chemins de la Liberté that I thought of Hannah’s book and got interested in learning more about it. Apparently a lot of courageous women joined in the dangerous work of the time. Another Belgian, coincidentally named Andrée Dumon, helped in transporting airmen to the French capital; she went by the alias of Nadine to avoid confusion with Andrée de Jongh. An American married to a Frenchman, Virginia d’Albert-Lake, was also involved in clandestine activities. All three of these women survived imprisonment in Germany and, fortunately, went on to live very long lives. As the author wrote in The Nightingale: “in war we find out who we are.” What an example these brave women are for us to celebrate, especially the week of International Women's Day.

In this area of France the Catalan people, not surprisingly, are quite proud of the contributions their ancestors made to the Resistance movement. Like other communities along the approximately 400-mile border with Spain, there are now organized “walking memorials.” Visitors can duplicate the remarkable paths taken by the passeurs and passeuses while shepherding families, members of the Resistance, escaped prisoners, as well as downed airmen through the mountains. If you’re interested, some of these treks last up to four days—averaging about seven hours per day. Definitely not for the frail or faint of heart!

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