weather

Our Nit de Foc

s’Arracó, forest fire, Mallorca, Oliver Neilson

The view from our office window
Photo by Oliver Neilson

Friday 26th July 2013

4.30pm I’m in Palma with my daughter when I hear about the fire. It’s burning vigorously in Sa Coma which is a few miles away from s’Arracó where we live. Every hour or so I call my husband, who is at home working, and then I start to see my neighbours posting photos on Facebook and Twitter of big, big bellowing clouds of smoke. A quiet anxiety begins to niggle away at me and I ask my husband to get our cats inside, and put them in a room where he can quickly put them in a travel box if need be. The hours go by. The fire moves closer to our house and our village which only the day before had been the stage for a brilliant Night of Art attended by thousands of people.

7.30pm My husband calls, he has to go out to see a client, so he releases the cats and leaves for Bunyola in the middle of the island.

9.30pm My seven year old daughter and I head for home. In Palma the sky is already dark. I know that the fire fighters in the helicopters can’t fly at night as it is too dangerous, so the fires will continue to burn unchecked. But I don’t truly appreciate what this is going to mean.

As we journey home we talk about the fire. I don’t want to frighten my little girl but I also don’t know what to expect. I ask her what three things she would want to take from the house if we had to leave quickly. She says “The three things I would take are Mummy, Daddy and Toffee” (her favourite toy). I explain that she was already on my list. We reach the crest of the hill: the town of Andratx is laid out before us. The sky is on fire. We both gasp.

I start gabbling, over and over, “oh my god, oh my god”. I drive slower than I usually would  through Andratx towards our village as I am not looking at the road; I am looking at the fire. The hills are glowing red, it is as if there is molten lava running down them and I can see flames. We are in a 4D volcano disaster movie. It’s incredible to look at, is it really okay to even be this close to the fire?

We drive from Andratx towards s’Arracó. The sky darkens and I start to think that our village has got away with it. Up, up on the winding country road to the top of the valley bowl, but as I turn the car into s’Arracó I have to slow down to a crawl. The landscape to the right of the village is alight.

When we get to our house which is on the main road of the village I am not surprised to see that all of my neighbours out. It’s a sharp contrast to the 24 hours before when we were all out celebrating the Night of Art and having a wonderful time at our home grown cultural fiesta. Tonight should have been a night to rest after our big party; we were all feeling a bit bleary already.

My opposite neighbours, Carlos and his family, are all on his first floor balcony window gazing at the flames. He is shirtless and wearing only his underpants: the air temperature is still tropical even though it is now 10.30pm. I hear him talking about his land, which is what he is looking at, it is on fire. He keeps animals up there and he hasn’t been allowed by the police to go up to release them.

As soon as we go into our house the cats appear. I decide not to feed them as I want them to stay close in case we need to evacuate. They lie on the cool tiles in the kitchen, chilling their bellies.

My daughter and I pack her things: a change of clothes, toothbrush, Toffee, and two more things special to her. We put them all in her pink suitcase and leave it by the door. Then she watches some TV and ignores the fire. I don’t. I can’t. Every time I look out of my home office window the flames are getting closer to us and filling the view. It’s compelling.

My friends and neighbours in the village keep in touch with each other through Facebook. We are taking photos and updating each other. The roads behind our village which travel off into the hills towards St Elm are closed and the properties there are evacuated by the Guardia. I hear of one family who are told to get out of their house and not expect it to be there in the morning. I don’t feel fear or panic, I feel numb. I can’t comprehend it.

I pack more things. What would we take if we had to evacuate? Passports, papers, work things, computers, cameras, clean pants, cats. Where would we go? We get offers from a lot of friends; we know we will be okay for somewhere to stay. I look at the contents of my house. We have a piano. What if it was burnt? Would the keys be left behind like the instrument’s teeth?

I speak to my father who lives in the Sa Coma valley and has decided to stay in his house with his wife. He thinks the wind has changed and they aren’t in any danger. I decide to believe him as he understands a lot more about wind directions than I do, given that he is a sailor .

11.30pm. The wind is picking up. I stand in our back garden and watch the hills glowing red with patches of embers. It’s beautiful to look at, but deadly to be in. I wonder about the animals that are in harm’s way. The wind is blowing from behind the fire directly towards our house and the rest of the village. The possibility that we will have to evacuate seems very real.

We watch and we decide that if we can see flames on the hills closest to us we will go.  One of my friends on Facebook tells me that if the smoke stings our eyes that it is time to hit the road. Our community vigil begins.

The flames creep over the hills and continue to travel towards St Elm. My friend who lives there reports that Sa Trapa is on fire as well. She is watching and waiting for her time to move as well.

We are in limbo. It’s as if we are all expecting a birth. We are waiting for nature to take its course. I keep busy and tidy the house; I put out the rubbish to be collected, which seems ironic as who knows what is going to happen? Perhaps by the morning there won’t be a house. I pack and prepare as if we are going on a holiday. It feels the same: putting plants in the bath, and doing a load of washing.

12.30pm We sit, we wait, we drink tea. There are a lot of people on the streets, a lot of cars moving around and doors being slammed. Our neighbours are loading their cars as well. Another of our neighbour’s sons is trying to find a safe place to park their car, it’s a classic Mini Moke and he is under strict instructions to get it away.

1.30am Water trucks drive down our street, one after another after another. The hydraulic brakes all hissing at the same point on the curve of the road.  Standing in our garden I can see the tongues of flames licking the palm trees in the distance.

2.30am I lose count of the number of water trucks, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty trips? The police are on the street again. It is the height of summer but the smoky air in s’Arracó makes it smell like winter and Christmas. The hours pass and the flames rage.

4.30am The wind calms and the fire begins to redirect itself.

5.30am The bin men pass by and I smile to myself as they stop to collect our trash. Hope prevails.

6.30am Daylight comes and with it the wind begins again. We can’t see the extent of the damage to our beautiful valley as everything is wrapped in a thick veil of smoke, but I can still see flames. The helicopters start to fly again.  I hear that our friends’ evacuated houses are okay, and it’s then that the tears come.

7.30am The suitcases are still by the door, but we decide to feed the cats. We pray for the wind to be still. The local cockerels start to crow.

First published on Sunday July 28th in the Majorca Daily Bulletin

The day it snowed

Please see below for a gallery of photos of a snowy Mallorca courtesy of some of my Facebook friends. 

It’s Saturday morning, it’s not a school day, so it’s not the alarm that wakes us up. There’s a weird feeling in our house, as if it is being cuddled. We pad around the house sleepily, rubbing our eyes and wondering about making a cup of tea or getting a glass of juice. It’s nice, this no-rush early morning, it might turn into a good day.  It feels like a firework has exploded in the living room when La Gidg opens a shutter, gazes out of the window and shrieks ‘IT’S SNOWING!’

Our neighbour, Carlos, is on the street, smoking a roll up because he doesn’t smoke in the house anymore since the baby came. He says that his wife’s mother says there hasn’t been snow like this since 1956. The snow is falling steadily from a dark sky. It’s fascinating to watch it appear in the beam of a street light as if it has come from nowhere. Magic. The snow is about 20 centimetres deep. I want to hug it. Carlos says the Spanish television says it is going to snow all day. How can Mallorca possibly be prepared for this sort of thing? Does the council even own a gritter or a snow plough? Why would they need one? The snow is so deep that it looks like we aren’t going anywhere today anyway, unless it’s by foot or by sledge. The snow has made everything feel so peaceful and cosy, it’s like being wrapped in a muffler. We’ve got a lot to do today, and none of it is going to happen. How liberating to say ‘we can’t come today, we have to reschedule’. And how easy.

La Gidg has never seen snow like this before, she’s six, she’s lived in Mallorca all of her short life. She is glittering with joy. What a treat for all of us. We pull on wellington boots and put coats on over our pyjamas and walk down the hill to our local cafe. There is a particular sound that snow makes when you walk on it; it’s a combination of a crunch and a squeak. A creak? A squnch? Other people are on the street too, they are smiling and saying hello to us. Everyone seems to be smiling, normally reticent and shy Mallorcans are actually saying hello to us without being prompted. Gidg is confused by snowflakes, ‘I thought they were like little stars’.

The snow has given our village a makeover. Even the street signs and power cables look graceful with their new icing sugar overcoats. There are more people stood outside of the cafe, they are all facing the road staring at the snowflakes falling as if they are watching a parade, some of them are trying to look nonchalant but you can tell they are all just as excited as Gidg. I see flashes of cheeky anticipatory grins from the man who runs the garage, and another one who is the local vet. Snowballs are soon flying from one side of the road to the other.

Gidg wants to eat the snow, we tell her to watch out for the yellow variety.  We fling snowballs at the trees to make the snow fall down in clumps. She makes a snowman and snow angels. It’s the perfect snow day, although it’s only really going to be a few hours. But she’s going to remember the day it snowed forever. When I was about her age I remember being inspired to draw a picture of my family home with snow on the roof and on the trees. I put the picture beside my bed and went to sleep. Overnight snow wrapped itself around our garden and our house, and when I woke I thought I had conjured up this miraculous weather with my drawing. For one amazing day I believed I had magical powers. My brothers and I played all day in the snow. That night I drew another picture to bring more snow. But by the morning, it had started to thaw. My career as a child sorceress was disappointingly short lived.

Inside the cafe there is water on the floor from snowy boots; every table is busy, even this early on a Saturday morning. We are here in time for the freshly baked croissants which are still crisply warm and buttery. Gidg has hot chocolate, we have strong and bitter coffee with warm milk.More people come in behind us, one man is carrying a little dog in his arms it’s a dachshund: it needs a carry today.

On the way back up the hill to our house, the snow is already turning from crispy white to slushy grey. Not everyone has boots on: one lady navigates her way across the road in a pair of fluffy mules. She doesn’t seem to mind her feet getting wet.

When we get back home Gidg puts her last snowball in the freezer to save it. The big melt has already started, there is water running down the hill where a few hours before there had been squnch. At the end of the day, after she’s gone to bed, snuggled down under two duvets and wearing extra socks, I make Gluwein and gaze out of the living room window, hoping for more snow, and wonder about drawing a picture.

©Vicki McLeod 2012

It snowed today at sea level in Mallorca… for the first time in over fifty years…. we all got a bit excited… thank you to my Facebook friends for sending me their photos! You can hook up with me here www.facebook.com/vicki.mcleod

Look on the bright side

‘Cor blimey guv, it’s brass monkeys out there’. And the rest fella: it was more than just a tad chilly last week when we went back to the UK for our little trip to see the rellies. (I made sure that La Gidg wore a lot of vests, and despite bringing other pairs of shoes, I didn’t take off my beloved Ugg boots for ten days). When moving from one place to another, we didn’t dilly dally. We all wore gloves, hats, scarves: which was a novelty for us Paradise Island dwellers. We secretly hoped for snow, but no dice. Ironically, whilst we were shivering in the wilds of Gloucester, it was actually snowing in Mallorca: we decided not to tell La Gidg, it would have broken her five year old heart as she has yet to experience the pure, silly delight of making a snowman.

But at least the interiors of the houses we visited were warm and toasty: centrally heated, carpeted with snugly fitted double glazing. Oh, it’s lovely: draught-free living.  It’s also a bit like being drugged, it was so warm in my in-laws’ house that I started to slip into an involuntary hibernation. Just add food and I was off to the land of nod. At least in the UK it was the right way around being colder outside of the house than inside. Quite a far cry from our home here in Mallorca, que frio, as they say. We are dependent here on our wood burning stove, electric blankets and extra jumpers. We live in an old, draughty, damp, stone house: terrific in the summer when you’re sweating cobs, not so fantastic in January. How come nobody seems to know that it can be miserably cold even in the Mediterranean in the winter? We’ve been back for 48 hours, and we still can’t get the house to warm up.

It’s been quite a while since I spent any time in the UK; I’d forgotten how grey everything is in the winter. The sky is overcast, there’s no light; everything is dulled and blanketed in street grime. That’s not to say we didn’t have a terrific time visiting the folks and catching up with our friends, and we made a promise to ourselves that we wouldn’t let so much time go past before our next trip. But I’ve got to tell you, that blast of sunshine that hit our pasty faces when we emerged stiff-legged from an economy airplane on Sunday was enough to tip the scales in Mallorca’s balance, central heating or no. Here come the almond blossoms, the beautiful yellow flowers, the bright twinkling daylight shimmering on the too-cold-to-swim-in sea.

Look at me, yakking about the weather. Well, you know what they say, you can take the girl out of England, but you can’t take England out of the girl.

www.facebook.com/vicki.mcleod