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Follow the Winds


We find weather fascinating and compelling. We share the view with many that the weather we experience when young affects us, even forms us, and nothing does so as powerfully as the winds. Joan Didion wrote in Los Angeles Notebook about life in Los Angeles with the Santa Ana wind:

"Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are."

Our own childhood was spent well to the north of Los Angeles, where a cousin of the Santa Ana, known only as the East Wind, would blow hot and dangerous off the Great Basin and down the Sierras to churn up the lake viciously. Usually, a lot of boats sank and a number of people became exceedingly tetchy.

People remember strong weather experiences. Our parent, years after relocating to the flatlands, always spoke of any dry wind that caused irritability as an "East Wind". A friend's grandfather who moved to Florida still called certain winds the Chinook, which blows in the west of North America. In the same way, your French ancestor may have had what seemed a pet word or an odd name for the wind but that could in reality have been a regional name for it. For those with no idea of where in France their ancestors may have originated (and for whom our posts on local recipes, liqueurs, and coiffes brought no revelations) , finding the name they used for the wind could provide a clue.

We give here some some names of French winds and their localities:

  • Bise is the name for a cold, dry north wind in the mountainous regions on the border of France and Switzerland.
  • In the Morvan, when the above comes in the springtime, it is called the hâle de mars.
  • In the winter, the extremely cold north wind that brings storms is called the bise noire in the Saône and the bise nègre in the Aveyron.
  • In the Drôme Valley, a rainy north wind is called a bise-brume.
  • The strong wind from the southeast that blows in Gascogne and along the upper Garonne river is called the vent d'autan. The autan blanc lasts a week, is dry and brings sunshine; the autan noir brings mist, rain or snow and lasts only a few days.
  • The well-known mistral is a wild, dry, cold wind from the northwest that blows on the Mediterranean coast. It comes in the spring and autumn, often reaching a force of over 100 kilometers per hour.
  • The labé blows in Provence from the southwest in the autumn and winter.
  • The foehn is a warm, violent wind that presages snow in the northern Alps and Switzerland.
  • The vent d'Albion blows from the plateau of that name (and not from England) in the southeast of France and is said to bring hail.

People talk about the weather and write about the weather. Vapid diarists do nothing but record the weather. Should you have writings of your French ancestor, read them and look for words on the weather. Perhaps you will find a mention of the labé or the autan blanc, and thus narrow to a region the part of this large and beautiful country you must search for your roots.

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy