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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Flying by memory


A picturesque little village called Le Barroux, piled up on a hill on the edge of the Rhône plain and topped with a chunky, sand-colored castle, is about 45 minutes’ drive northeast of Avignon, past Carpentras with its mediaeval walls and its giant superstore and its town-consuming market on Fridays. The solitary, lunar peak of Mont Ventoux: feared Tour de France stage, géant de Provence, lonely harbinger of the massed ranks of the Alps to the east, looms moodily over the scrubby hills and the silent plateaux and the vast apron of busy, fertile flatland behind the village.

In the village, there is a house with an olive and apricot orchard. My grandfather, a Geneva architect, converted it from a barn in the late 1960s. My mother and her sisters still own it. I’ve been going there for vacations since I was born (I was named after the olive trees), and I’ve been there more than half of my life. But not since 2018, when I had a baby and then, well, you know what happened. Perhaps next year. But my mother and aunts are getting older, and the diaspora of cousins is dispersed and thinly spread, and the place is becoming more difficult to use and maintain with each passing season. I’m getting the impression that time is running out.

A trailer for the Xbox edition of Microsoft Flight Simulator.

So, when I finally fired up Microsoft Flight Simulator for the first time this week, inspired by Bertie’s question, I knew there was only one place I wanted to visit.

My Cessna took off from Avignon’s airfield and crawled patiently towards the Ventoux through a lattice of market towns, vineyards, and business parks. When a single kilometer-high mountain dominates the entire landscape, navigating is simple. The jagged limestone teeth of the Dentelles de Montmirail extended to its left, towards me; I knew the slot in this range of foothills where the village should be. There was Caromb, a nearby village where good wine could be purchased cheaply directly from the vineyard. I shifted my path to the left. There was the bright blue splodge of the lac du Paty, a swimming hole high in the hills; and there was the D938 snaking along the valley floor; and there was Le Barroux itself, an unmistakable shape even without the distinctive silhouette of its château (perhaps it’s in the world update that’s still downloading); and there was the little square of green that had to be the orchard; and there was the little cub of green that had to be

Circled in red: my childhood memories.

My heart was racing. It’s a commonplace marvel in this day and age – it’s just a fancy version of Google Maps – but it still packs an emotional punch. Perhaps it’s the way the landscape comes to life from this vantage point, suspended somewhere between the satellite’s flattening, objective gaze and the subjective map built in the pathways of your memory. This is more than just a map. It’s a landscape you know by heart, instinctively. You recognise not only how it looks, but also how it feels. You are aware of its moods.

After seeing the village, I decided to fly my Cessna over the Ventoux’s bald summit. However, it was my first flight and I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t climb quickly enough, and then, as the deep green flanks of the mountain rose to meet me, I climbed too quickly, forcing the AI to take over to prevent a stall. The little Cessna tried its hardest, but it wasn’t going to make it. I, like so many others before me, came unstuck on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, having underestimated the Provence’s colossus.


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