When you go somewhere new it’s always interesting to listen. The sounds of a different place are thought-provoking. Stimulating. We don’t usually pay attention. They often go in one ear and out the other. The eyes have it (haha).
Dermot said that the sound of the fierce Tramontane evoked ancient fears and he was right. This wind blows over Gruissan from the north from time to time, sweeping down over the Massif and out into the sea, and one day when we were there it gusted to a violent 70 kmph.
And there’s something primeval in us – a warning that wind is not good, it can cause damage, we need to seek shelter and safety. Think of a wind that can blow down houses and trees and scatter cars like dust across roads and fields. Our primitive self is warning us: what if the wind keeps getting stronger, what if it grows and grows and grows and takes us?
And the chalets are old and some are rickety and the wind howls through gaps in the wood and a shutter bangs against a wall. And the palm trees are pushed and pulled and the wires shriek.
And the wind has a presence. It takes on a personality of something old and powerful and menacing and beyond our understanding.
And one day I was on the balcony marvelling at this wind, how natural it was and how puny we are in the face of it – in the face of all nature – and the chalets all turn their backsides to it, because the builders knew a thing or two. So it wasn’t really putting in our out on me, except keeping me off the bike and off the beach. So I was reading. I was reading a book called All My Puny Sorrows and it was a good book – tough and moving – and the narrator (who is planning a way of facilitating her sister’s assisted suicide) casually mentions that in France during the Mistral a person can be acquitted of murder. Because the wind can drive you crazy, you get off.
I’m sure that’s not true but I wonder if one had a week of it, just blowing, or a month, or two months. Constant, implacable, insistent, creeping into you. That would be a tester.
Then there’s the sound of a different house settling at night. A click. Footsteps on the gravel path. Voices coming closer and fading.
The sound of the waves, when the wind is from the sea. The sound of children playing on the beach, that wonderful shriek of joy that only a child can make. A car drives by. A bicycle wheels.
The clack of a boule hitting another one. The thump when it hits the ground. Close, from the house three over, when its inhabitants came out to drink their aperitifs and stand around and play and chat in the cooling shade. And further off, where the fine bellied men play with the jolly but knowing insouciance that only the French can pull off.
Bird sounds. The wonderful sounds of the swifts, their call, like a scream to our ears but our ears are primitive. And they have screaming parties when several of them get together in the summer evening heat and shriek away to their hearts’ content, as they perform their gravity denying feats of aeronautical wonder around and over the chalets.
The chirruping of the sparrows, that ubiquitous twitter we know so well.
The strange call of the starlings, you couldn’t call it a song, it’s more like a series of static sounds coming out of a badly tuned old radio. A bird I happen to love because most people hate it. A smart bird and thriving one and long may it be so.
And then there was our black bird, that Der first noticed darting in and around the chalet opposite. Then it would perch up on the tall concrete pole in the evening and give it lowry and it had funny mix of verse and chorus. The verse was like that of a robin, melodic and slow of tempo, maybe not as melancholic as a robin. Then the chorus was like the ackackack of and TV static when you’d fall asleep longo in front of it and when you wake up it’s hissing at you.
He was black mostly, this little fellow but with a lash of red in his tail when he’d land or take off. Small little beak like a robin, he maybe a little bit larger than a robin, about the size of a sparrow.
Anyway, the day we went to Abbeye de Fontfroide there was a sign about local birds and it turns out he is a black redstart and he didn’t stay long, he must have been passing through. His natural milieu is more a wooded area. He must have wandered down from the Massif for a look-see.
Herring gulls were out and about, letting fly their long loud ululations from time to time. They roosted down near the beach at night I think, not too many predators to bother those boys, they’d go through you as soon as look at you.
Ne’er a sound of a corvid, which is strange because they’re ubiquitous and when I was in Ballybunion a few weeks ago there were jackdaws a-plenty making their cearc cearc cearc sounds to each other as they came and went on the cliffs.
There’s a creak in the floor over by the counter top in the kitchen that I tried to avoid when I was up early for a cycle. I put some three-in-one oil on the two press doors where the bowls and coffee are kept so they wouldn’t squeak. The curtains make a soft swish when the breeze catches them, a little tap against the table when it brushes it by. The small net curtains whisper when the breeze lifts them against the lamp by the bed. The kettle whistles shrill when the water boils, the coffee pot gurgles its sweet scented completions.
We put some music on for dinner. There is talk and the clink of knife and fork on plate. That lovely sound of a cork being freed from a bottle.
A family wanders down to the beach as the sun sets, for a late evening swim. A boy is full of questions, high-toned and sweet. His father answers softly, deep, his flip flops flip flop on the road. The odd helicopter. Rain one night for a while – its pat pat pat incongruous.
The slam pull of the door shut so that I can turn the key. The bolt securing. The creak of the third last rung on the concrete steps down. The car engine. The Satnav telling us to turn left.
Au revoir, Gruissan Plage. À bientôt.
I hear you still.