Wood Smoke Stories

Smoky southern France

I’ve recently moved to southern France—to a village I’ve known, and visited, for decades, but really only ever during the summer months. It’s just November, and already there is an ever-present smell of smoke.

My immediate neighbour, whose chimney is a matter of feet from my upstairs windows, has been away since the weather cooled, but is shortly to return: the logs have all just been delivered in anticipation. So, surrounded as I am, things can only get worse! Everyone here tells me this is how I should be heating my own hitherto unheated house, and in France there are real government incentives to install wood-burning stoves. (There are also government incentives to install double-glazing, which, under the current smoky circumstances, would a least make sense as part of an effort—if ultimately futile—to stop the smoke seeping in.)

I even—despite myself—went to an appointment about possibly getting one only last week, so persuasive is the targeted, whole misguided thrust of the sustainability and coziness “eco”-argument. But, all the while my reluctance has only been growing. It is, after all, disgusting, this apparent—official—tolerance for the obviously hugely polluting.

Sitting inside the house, I keep trying to tell myself that the smell must be coming from something else—but the air inside smells just like those potent wafts you get when you (used to) light a bonfire in the garden and have come back inside only to realize just how much your hair and clothes stink; that the irritated cough I seem to have developed is merely transient and not, of course, on account of its now-glaring cause.

At what cost, I ask myself now, might this intention to move here turn out, sooner or later, to be? It’s just, all over again, like the 1980s, when I had to endure a suffocatingly smoke-filled office and was told not to open the window because it was cold outside—except of course that if smoking were still allowed inside today, opening any window for some “fresh” air would likely yield no such benefit at all…