2006July31 A small visitor

Approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes

[no animals were harmed in the making of this blog entry]

I’ll try to make this quick, because it’s a little late, and I have other things to do before I go to sleep.

The walls are famously thick of the houses here in the village. The rule of thumb and usual reference is three feet. It’s not quite that, but probably at the base of the house it’s close to that. They are, indeed, masonry walls, and mainly on the periphery walls of stone, either as rubble within the wall or as large stones carefully fitted to one another.

As a result the windows are projections, and our pretty much modern windows, all of them casements opening inward, are set midway in the opening. Hence the sills are deep, and form a shelf in every window. These are commonly tiled. They are in our house. On the outside, to cover the window opening are shutters, which open outward, and these, like the windows, are either split “French-style,” that is there are two hinged shutters meeting in the middle, or there is a single shutter, hinged on one side or the other.

With the shutters closed, the house is quite dark within.

The front of the house, which constitutes one of only two walls with access to the out of doors, faces west. The other outer wall faces south. We sit, in short, on a corner, and our other inner walls are party to our neighbors: one to the north, and another “behind” us, to the east.

The result of this aspect and configuration is that the front of the house is in shadow until well past noon, but we see the sunny opposite side of the place almost as soon as the sun rises in the morning. The houses are sufficiently high opposite us, and slightly elevated relative to our position that we don’t get that much direct sun. So the inside of the house, on the first two floors, anyway, stays moderately cool and livable, even in the worst of the dog days, which have, incidentally, returned after a respite following a clamorous thunderstorm of two hours duration a few days ago.

The top floor where I toil away, entertaining you sporadically, is just under the roof, and there is no insulation, and it gets warm, unless we keep the air moving, which we do. My fingers move very quickly across the keyboard setting up a slight breeze. That and the four foot circular fan I described a few entries back make all the difference.

The house has no screens. Most houses don’t. On the plain, it’s a problem, because of the flies. Up here in the village the flies are less of a problem, and there are few mosquitoes, if any.

As for other insectivora there are plenty of critters, of every conceivable type. In particular there are wasps and hornets, though I’m hard put to tell the difference. One of them has wings that jut straight out, like a spy plane, and the other has wings that sit at an angle, sort of swept-wing, like fighter planes. It doesn’t much matter, as they don’t bother anyone most of the time, unless you’re eating, and they don’t usually get into the house. The eating thing is a problem only when we entertain out on the terrace on the roof.

On the third floor, the only windows that open are in front, as per the rest of the house, and facing south, again normale, but in the kitchen up here, and so around a jog in the wall, because of the doorway into the kitchen. there is also a unique fixed window, that is, it can’t be opened, but it looks out on the terrace and faces east, so there is mucho sun up here in the morning, starting at sunrise.

We leave the French double casement windows open in front on this floor. Hence there is a slow, but steady stream of either wasps or hornets—these particular beasts are on the small side and have the delta wing design. They fly to the fixed window. I would too. It looks like the way out again. But of course it isn’t. Poor things. And so they loiter, buzzing around the window, up and down, side to side. At night, once a crowd has accumulated—about the third day we had been here—they bunch up at the top of the window, as if keeping one another warm, not that it gets that cool up here. But there is a community thing happening. They’re in a bunch right now, a tight bunch, right in the corner, out of reach—though the last thing I would think of doing is reaching for them.This has been going on for almost two weeks now. Every morning, I come up here to check the mail that arrived overnight: and say, folks, the mail has been slim in this direction. You know who you are.

Every morning I expect to find a little pile of hornet or wasp corpses on the sill. But nothing. They’re keeping alive somehow. The size of the bunch has stabilized so maybe they’re eating each other, or maybe a few of them have an extra brain cell or two and they are finding their way back to the open window, or are feeling adventurous and going around the corner into the kitchen, where there’s about one and-a-half square meters of wide open window (that’s about 15 square feet for you culture-centric or math-challenged).

Anyway, that’s the wasp and hornet story. There’s a bunch of other singular specimens of a variety of species, very much smaller, except the moths, and they flit around, not bothering me or anybody else. And that’s pretty much their story.

On the floors, especially in corners in the dark, we find corpses, speaking of corpses, of beetles and tiny critters that look exactly like scorpions, but they are only related and don’t pack quite the same wallop. They’re about an inch and-a-quarter long, and their stingers rise maybe three-eighths of an inch above them. They move kind of slowly, and we’ve mainly seen dead ones. Nevertheless we check our shoes before we put them on. I do and Linda is supposed to. So far no stings. Nevertheless, they like dark tight spaces. And I guess they either have no olfactory development worth speaking of, or they like the smell of feet. And that’s the little scorpion-not-really story.

I mentioned the cicadas, cigales in French, and one of the symbols of Provence. There is at least one restaurant called Les Cigales for, I’d say, every 10,000 people who live in Provence. Our favorite Les Cigales, though we’ve hardly been to all of them (would make a nice project though) is in Aix. Their pizza is particularly good, and they have a nice terrace on the street.

The cicadas have been active and voluble of late, because of the heat, as I said.

One evening last week, a cicada landed on Linda’s shoulder while we were out eating at a restaurant in Aups, called La Provencale (not very good, and our waitress was trop attitude, so you won’t be hearing much about that place, much as I have a masterly way with a complaint or a disparaging word, but this was, except for the cicada, just beyond the pale and not worth my typing about). Anyway, this monster lands on her shoulder, and scares the crap, but only for a moment, out of Linda, who then did not know what to do.

I sat next to her, so I had the best view. It was a beautiful thing, a sort of matte medium gray, warmish in tone, and almost monochromatic. There was a couple of little kids at the table next to us, Irish as it happened, so I thought it would be easy to attract their attention without groping for French. But they didn’t take much interest. Though Grandpa did, and he remarked on the size of it. I had mistaken them for Americans, so I said it was a Texas cicada, and he allowed as it probably was, in quite a brogue, which immediately disabused me of their origins. Linda was getting tired of not moving a muscle, and I guess the little creature also was getting bored because in one leap or short flight it landed on a roost about five feet away, and we lost him. Perfect camouflage.

I like moments like that. These creatures are truly beautiful, and, though not privy to Linda’s fantasies as she sat there, at first unknowing, and then terrified—the thing was about four inches long and they are all legs and wings, folded back in a characteristic aerodynamic foil, even at rest—I myself wished for another encounter. In the end they are not harmful, or so I gather.

And that was that for cigales, or at least the larger species of insect beasts, until today.

Last night, as I leaned out the front window of the salon on the ground floor, I noticed Nicole, the innkeeper and our good friend in the doorway of the inn, returning from watering their plants on the facade. I noticed that the kitchen was dark and the kitchen door closed, though usually wide open, with the bug zapper and its eery blue light visible across the way, even with all the lights on in there. This meant their cook was, once again, hors de combat.

Nicole and Rudolf’s trials with kitchen staff would make a book, but I won’t get into that. I just knew, as I leaned on the tiles of the sill, which is about 28 inches above the floor (and yet, on the other side, the outside of our place, the bottom of the window is practically level with the street—but I’ll explain the significance of that in a moment), that Nicole was probably fit to be tied. With the cook out, the restaurant could not serve dinner even to the guests of the Inn who didn’t fell like driving the few miles to the nearest eatery, in any one of several towns surrounding us.

She usually notices everything going on within eyesight, but such was her reverie and preoccupation that I had to call, “Nicole” before she took notice, just as she was going to disappear inside. In effect, I said what gives and she told me he was calling in “sick” again. I said, well then come in and have a glass of wine, an invitation she rarely refuses if it’s possible to take it up.

I was in the midst of making dinner, and she came in and joined us, for just one glass of wine. We killed the entire bottle with her, and she also had dinner, as she couldn’t remember if she had even eaten (this cook business is very upsetting). She insisted she would replace the bottle—a rosé from the Chateau La Curniéres, which is in neighboring Tavernes, and a very good value: I bought half a case for 27 euros just that afternoon, and it’s a wine featured at the Inn (for 22 euros a bottle, and quite a value at that). We insisted she wouldn’t. Finally we bid one another good night and I locked up.

This morning, after looking through my sparse pickings in the email department (see above: inadequate communications from friends) I headed downstairs, and passing through the salon sensed more than noticed that something was amiss.

The window in there, as I say, faces the place with a sill about two and-a-half feet above the floor and about four or five inches above the pavement which comes right up to the stone wall of the facade of our house. The entire first floor of our house is below grade, with the kitchen floor down a deep step further. This means mainly that outside the house at least, the grade has been raised a number of times, I’d guess since our house was built. The town was established in the 12th century, probably late in that period. We are told our house is either 14th or 15th century in origin. That’s a long time to be putting layer on layer.

The chief deficit of this is, with stone walls, and a floor inside closer to the water table and below the grade outdoors, the walls wick moisture out of the ground and that moisture stays insulated by about two feet of earth and stone. Hence we have a perpetual decaying of the inside plaster on the front wall. We’ll suffer, thanks.

Window treatments in southern France are represented in a narrow band of interpretations. There’s your lace window curtains. There’s your lined drapes. There’s your wooden-beaded curtains—popular in doorways and windows down on the plain: they admit light and aren’t a barrier to humans and pets, but they keep out flies. There are some other treatments even less attractive to us than these. For four years now, and longer, we’ve had naked windows, though you’d never know it from outside, which is what counts, with the shutters closed. They mainly are closed, we’re so seldom here of late.

But you gotta’ have window treatments. The compulsion is Linda’s, and I don’t disagree. I’m just your usual persnickety picky mate, as I am with more or less everything else, and not just any treatment will do.

We both agreed that a nice, plain, sort of gauzy see-through kind of curtain would do. For the salon, we found a nice piece of gauze they would use up in about three minutes at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, for a mere 150 bucks for this flimsy bit of, well, I can’t even call it cloth. About seven feet long, and about five feet wide, with ties attached at the top to go round a curtain rod. It took us six months to get it hemmed, possibly in the ‘States, flying it back and forth with us, because who knows a good seamstress in Fox-Amphoux? But I’m not sure of these details.

It does lend a nice dreamy romantic quality during the day to the light coming into the room. And you can’t really see in, because we don’t have lights on, certainly none brighter than the blazing sunlight. And, remarkably, no one looks into other people’s windows over here. At least not while I’m watching, sometimes deep in the shadows of the salon.

So this morning I detected something different about the room, and I looked around quickly and noticed the curtain was disturbed—pushed aside slightly—and there, sitting on the sill, was a bottle of Chateau La Curniéres Rosé 2004. Magic. I went over to retrieve it, and as I straightened the curtain on the rod, noticed a slight movement above my head.

A very large bug, with very big legs, what I originally thought might be a cigale (but have been told, by Pascal Masi, is not possible with such legs—more likely a grasshopper or locust, or maybe a cricket; all are related) was sitting there on the rod, and he suddenly leaped to the floor. I spotted him, not moving, and I ran into the kitchen, grabbed a colander, ran back, and threw it over him. I went up to the third floor and grabbed a sheaf of ink-jet paper to slip beneath the colander, retrieved my camera, and went back to the salon. I switched lenses, slid the paper under the colander, lifted the whole deal off the floor and put it on a table, raised the colander. Nothing. Gone. Vanished.

Actually he was clinging to the inner surface of the colander, and I gingerly coaxed him onto the paper, and then somehow onto the outside of the colander. Tough to shoot. Very small, maybe three inches long, and all tension. No way to tell when and in what direction he would spring. I grabbed a couple of shots, and then brought him to the open window, and he immediately jumped to the ground, a distance of maybe eight inches, thanks to the raised surface of the road. I took one more picture.

This last one was sort of mano à bêto I stared at him, and I know he was scrutinizing me. Big eyes, taking in everything. The rest of him blended beautifully with the leafy detritus on the ground outside our ill-kempt street front. I know what you’re thinking. What’s with all the brown leaves and junk? It’s summer. Well, they’ve probably been there since our last visit, in January. What I want to know is, how does he know, blending in perfectly, when you come right down to it?

This is wholly beside the point. What struck me is the way he studied me. I know he was memorizing every feature: the beard, the glasses, the wild white hair, the slight skin condition. The next time we meet, I know one of us will be ready, and it won’t be me.

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