Friday, January 18, 2008


It has been raining, raining, raining for the past three weeks. We will have two or three days of solid rain, and then a day or two of sun (which is good: I can hang the laundry out to dry), and then more rain. One night last weekend the rain fell so hard that it woke us up in the middle of the night.

Rain is different when you live in the country, or in the almost-country, as we do. Maybe what I should say is this: when you live in the city, you live with pavement. Water runs off the concrete and into gutters and then it is gone, and you walk along under your umbrella or, if you forgot that, under the shop awnings, and you try not to step in puddles. But aside from puddles and damp shoes, you are insulated from the wetness of the rain. The water goes away. It flows downhill, or, at any rate, into the sewer and out of your life. (Assuming, of course, that it doesn't enter your basement or your attic or your garage: but those are events that are outside of the ordinary rain experience.)

Here the rain is a force to reckon with. Not just the rain itself, falling so hard that it wakes us out of deep sleep, but the results of the rain. Rain is a cause and has effects. Our parking area is up the hill from our house and uphill from our lane--uphill in the sense of a vertical turn from the lane up and then only slightly less gradually down. Above our parking area is a once-road that is now a path leading to the village. When it rains as it has been doing, the path becomes a stream. You could play poohsticks in its current.

Our parking area and driveway are not paved; M. LaChaix, bless him, thought that pebbles would be ever so much more rustique. Well, rustic it is, and so is the inside of my car, filled with pebbles and clay that have stuck to our shoes. And so is the inside of the house: I have not yet found the doormat that will rid shoes and paws of mud and pebbles. The house is lacking in gutters--plus rustique, encore--and so when I and my muddy shoes arrive at the back door and fumble with my keys, large drops of water fall from the top of the house down the back of my jacket.

There's the laundry factor as well, with the rain. We have a clothes dryer, but it is not terribly efficace. It spins the clothes around dutifully for five or ten minutes, and then it takes a break; then starts in again; then, time for another coffee. When it eventually stops, the clothes are not so much dry as they are less wet. I haven't figured out yet if there is a button on the dryer that I could push that means, yes, REALLY DRY, please. What all that means--that and the cost of electricity and the mortgage crisis and the war in Iraq and the melting ice caps and the bottomless fall of the dollar against the euro--is that I hang our clothes outside to dry, which, thanks be to the Mediterranean sun, they do, quickly. But when it rains: ah. Then what. Then I hang the clothes in the basement, on the line that Olivier put up for me, and, two or three days later, they are mostly dry. It's given me an entirely new historical perspective. There's a dissertation out there that has yet to be written on The Problem of Wet Laundry in Early Modern Europe.

Tuesday morning I received a welcome jolt of perspective on my troubles with the rain. The gardener from the villa below ours on the hill knocked on the door.

Il y a un petit ruisseau, there is a little stream, he said, that is flowing from the terrace at the bottom of your garden down the hill into the olive grove and, after that, into the vineyard.

What he did not say, because he did not need to, was this: the petit ruisseau was issuing forth from the place where our epandage, our leechfield, lies. The little stream was not some natural spring flowing forth because of the excess rain. The stream was flowing out of our septic system.

I went and found Olivier. He went to the bottom of our garden and stepped down into the public right-of-way path that runs between our us and the next villa. The gardener was waiting. I stood under our olive trees and looked down at the two men as they talked and gestured, and I looked at the stream. This ruisseau had current, too, though you might not want to play poohsticks in it. It was several feet wide, and flowed from a hole in the side of the terrace that supports the end of our garden, across the seriously muddy path, under a half dozen olive trees, and then found a level spot under several rows of grape vines, where the runoff from the leechfield was pooling into several giant puddles. If they were to press these grapes, they could call the wine Cote d'Epandage, and sell it someplace where no one speaks French septic.

For those of you following along at home, you will remember this is not the first difficulty that our septic system has wrought. Olivier and the gardener stood and conferred, and I heard Olivier say that no, this time, after they had entirely reconstructed the leechfield, everything was, or should be, up to code, tout en regle. But still: should there be this much water flowing out from the system? And was it really for the best that it flow into the vineyard below?

The next morning the rain was back, and I saw Olivier go down to the bottom of the garden and meet a man in the path. They stood under their umbrellas for a while and watched the water flow. I asked him later if the plumber had come about the septic.

The plumber? He looked blank.

I reminded him. I saw you talking to him this morning, next to the ruisseau.

Ah, yes. That was not the plumber, Olivier smiled. That was the geologist.

We have graduated from plumbers to geologists. I don't know what can be done about our stream. There's been a lot of rain, and the leechfield can only hold so much water, and after that, well, water flows downhill. Downhill, in our case, across a public path and into a vineyard. But if anyone could make water flow uphill, then I'm sure it would be a Frenchman.

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