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A dip in the Med

By Terry Joseph
May 29, 2002

Bravely, I thought, no right thinking person, given the opportunity to take a dip in the Mediterranean Sea so near to the Riviera should leave the South of France without exploiting the possibility.

One should absolutely surf this brush with history, share the foam, as it were, with mythology at least for the purpose of boring one’s grandchildren; murdering a precious silence sometime in the future.

Saturday morning seemed a good enough time for this adventure. I had planned, quietly, telling no one of the approach. I would to go Le Gare, discover the appropriate trains, ride inconspicuously to the edge of the eastern hemisphere and touch posterity with a swashbuckling big-toe in the first instance and, if finding the environment conducive, go full bore; swimming perhaps to Nice or Barcelona, dependent on the tailwind.

But the day opened under a thick canopy of grey cloud, promising at best mid-morning rain and even that was a pledge made well before the weather prankster (that colourful harlequin you could almost hear laughing behind every television weather-forecast) trespassed into the fantasy.

By 1 p.m. it was “nice”, earning that all-inclusive description so common to inhabitants of temperate climates, even when the more worldly among us know in our hearts the ambience was only intended by nature as a training ground for children interested in the art of making sno-cones.

For it was but a burst of sun, competing with conspiratorial breezes that rattled less robust leaves like little sabres, telegraphing intention to do battle with the very sun that so cheerfully offered its heat to the sales department of the famous Med.

Two hours later, a golden and sparkling version triumphed, affording bold luxuries like unzipping of windbreakers and spurring the “nice day today” vanguard into defiant displays of T-shirts and halter-tops. Members of the Dutch Police Steelband, one of several here in Sete for the European Pan Festival, paraded in summer uniforms, which featured short sleeved white cotton shirts and fun metal blue trousers, the nine-member band dancing as they entertained at Aristide Briand.

A stone’s throw away, Swiss conductor Yaira Yonne took Britain’s Ebony Steelband through their paces. In a third corner of the park, the sound of France’s Steelband de Montagnac warmed visitors and locals alike to the sound of pan.

Music lovers were kissing each other on both cheeks (as is the custom here) smiling all the way to the bank of Canal Royal, Sete’s mini Venice, as the pan pilgrimage coursed through the village; auditing performances at the three competition venues featured on Day One of the Festival.

The evening would top out with an Andy Narell Concert at Theatre de la Mer. For openers, there was the French ensemble Les Alizes, playing zouk on steel. The amphitheatre sits on the Mediterranean seafront and on Saturday night did so under a majestic full moon that began dancing on the water well before sunset took its final curtain call.

Narell’s concert had been nudged back from 8 p.m. to a 9 p.m. starting time, a small detail that was kept under wraps by festival organisers, or at least leaked only to technical crew and performers. In the circumstance, I remained naively faithful to my promise of getting there really early and securing the best seat; an error that would grow in significance as the evening wore on.

For those of greater experience with the whimsy of the Med, a change of clothing was clearly indicated. I not among them went with my normal short sleeved shirt, buttressed only by a thin nylon Fubu windbreaker.

But it was the Memorial Day weekend and, as the French would subsequently let slip, a time when the weather goes into erratic mode. The choice of a seat in the lower middle of the arena exposed me to first assault for the breezes now coming in over the water.

Now, weather forecasters had been on spot that morning, offering a temperature of 22C, rising to a high of 26C; their predicted low of 19C no reason to put the crystal ball’s integrity to risk. But all weather forecasting guarantees collapse when The Med dips. These and other little travel facts somehow escape the brochure. Veterans of the experience would later attest: “She goes down like a mermaid.” And that night she did, plunging to 8C and throwing concert patrons into shivers.

I never did handle winter well, particularly when it occurs during the early weeks of a properly advertised summer. With the month of June mere days away, there we were, the Caribbean Festival contingent no more conspicuous than their European counterparts, both shuddering in the face of this Mediterranean breeze.

Coats were buttoned up to the neck, hands balled into fists, then stuffed severely into pockets, bodies hunched in battle against the chill, depending on an arsenal almost exclusively supplied by a range of new alcoholic products being tested by Angostura.

Those outside the hospitality loop, who stumbled into this theatre of the weather war armed only with US currency were first prisoners. Dead presidents, it turned out, counted for nothing at bars in the South of France, even as George W Bush was being entertained by his French counterpart some 600 miles to the north. You had to have Euros in this town to keep warm.

But the band played on. Narell was at his finest. When he began “Coffee Street” the crowd let out a roar. I should note this, I thought, only my fingers could not hold the pen. They were frozen. Applause, though well and truly earned, doubled as survival technique, stinging the blood supply back into icy palms. This unseasonal dip in the Mediterranean weather had taken its toll, even on the music.

But quite unlike some of my fellow Trinis, I really couldn’t make it to the end, Narell notwithstanding. So when the judges excused themselves, I too got up and left on the premise that the day had been rigorous, making my way back to the warmth of Hotel Azur. “This just cannot happen two days in a row in a Mediterranean summer,” I told myself, swallowing involuntarily at the precocity of attempting to so authoritatively command nature.

As if to reinforce hierarchy, next morning opened coldly. Alas, I had swallowed only once … and you know what they say about one swallow.

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