“People forget quickly,” says Elizabeth Gabay, “Many people presume life has returned to normal – they do not realise the extent of the devastation. Both the Vesubie and La Roya should not be forgotten. We need faith and optimism.”
Elizabeth lives in Saint-Martin-Vésubie, one of the villages heaviest hit by Storm Alex eight weeks ago, on the night of October 3, that left 8 people dead and 11 missing in France. The town, with a population of 1,411 (Source: INSEEE 2017), was cut off from the rest of the world when its roads were washed away, along with hundreds of coffins from the local cemetery. To date, over 80 homes have been lost and this number continues to rise as the land remains unstable and wet winter weather is upon us. Temporary roads now provide a lifeline for the town but the Vesubie still has no sewage treatment works.
“It was like a war zone with helicopters 24/7. Three days after the storm, everyone was saying we would have to evacuate, which meant the village would be abandoned and die. There were no roads and we were isolated. About half the village left. The rest of us decided to fight to keep the village going,” Elizabeth describes.
“Communal soup kitchens and animal rescue were set up, counselors brought in to assist those suffering from trauma. Many people who lost homes have been temporarily lodged elsewhere, some in holiday accommodation in the village. People are being very stoic, tearful but moving on, while others have cracked from the stress of losing papers and photos. For some older people, they have lost everything and need to start again.”
For Elizabeth, one thing that has been very noticeable over the past two months is that “the expat community on the Coast seems very unresponsive to the disaster” in a town some 40 kilometres north of Monaco. So how did she end up in this commune on the edge of a glacial plate in the first place?
From City Life To Village Walks
Elizabeth moved to Saint-Martin-Vésubie eighteen years ago from London. “My husband and I and two small children decided to have an adventure and move to France. We looked round all the wine regions and Paris, but a chance discovery of Saint-Martin was a coup de coeur,” she recalls.
She was no stranger to the South of France. Although Elizabeth was born in New York, her mother missed Europe and her parents returned to the U.K. when she was two. As her father was from the Mediterranean and a native French speaker, every holiday they came south.
“In the 1980s my parents bought a holiday home in the Var. I had worked in the theatre, backpacked round the world and was looking for what next. In 1986, I set up my own business representing Provence vineyards in the U.K.”
As only one of 400 people in the world accredited as a Master of Wine (there are three in the Alpes-Maritimes), Elizabeth is an authority on the wines of southern France (and central Europe), and a Provence specialist for the Wine Scholar Guild (formerly the French Wine Society), guiding tours around the region and giving regular webinars on the wines of Provence and rosé. She has written the definitive book on rosé, Rosé: Understanding the pink wine revolution.
Although she had a strong link to the region, village life was not quite the same as the buzz of London with its large mix of people, museums, and theatre. “95% of people in the Vésubie are local French and we have found it harder to have as active a social life as in London. Still, it is never lonely; every time we walk into the village we meet people we know – so I love the community of a small village. Weekends and summers give wider diversity – a chance to meet some interesting people. Life in London with small children was expensive and my kids have had an ideal childhood here, as it is safe to go out and play, and there is a large garden and woods to explore.”
She says that although her family is accepted and part of the community – they are also very involved in organizing the Marche de la Memoire, the annual walk commemorating the deportation of Jews in St Martin Vésubie in September 1943 – they “sometimes feel, even after 18 years, like outsiders.”
On Top Of The Disaster, There Is Covid And Accusations
In Saint-Martin-Vésubie, the risk of getting Covid has increased as 1,000 workers were brought in for search and rescue of bodies, helping those stranded, building temporary roads and services, and stabilizing risky buildings. (Elizabeth points out that its thanks to Nice mayor Christian Estrosi and MP Eric Ciotti the town wasn’t abandoned and left to die.)
Mayor Ivan Mottet, 73, has not been strict about lockdown, but Elizabeth and her family have chosen to be stricter and remain quite isolated
“Lockdown has been emotionally very difficult. We had a long week of one café being open and it was packed everyday with those of us who had stayed on. We needed the community and to be able to chat.
“The mayor and the municipal were elected in June and were out of their depth at the beginning. The prefecture sent up a crisis management team for three weeks. The town hall is working very hard but communication is not their strong point so there has been a lot of anger. And in the meantime, villagers are discussing plans for the future, which is not always easy as everyone has a different agenda on which direction to go to revitalise a village that was already in decline for various reasons,” Elizabeth says.
She adds, “Insurance companies have ranged from fantastic to real bastards. I heard today that a resident has not been able to get to her house for 8 weeks. All the roads around her home have gone but, miraculously, the house is still standing even though she cannot access clothes or papers or anything. Insurers say that the house is still there so nothing to pay.”
There is concern over the lack of transparency, information and consultation of residents by mayor Mottet (who won with only 59.89% of the vote), and especially his decision, as reported in Nice-Matin, to take away control of the distribution of donations from the non-profit organisation, Secours Populaire. Facing critics shouting cronyism – “all the friends will benefit, the others will have to make do” – the mayor defends his decision by saying the Secours Populaire has overly restrictive criteria for receiving aid: “You have to be below a certain income threshold to benefit from it, so what we’re talking about here is giving out to people who have lost everything.” he told the French daily.
Hélène Martin, who launched a collective in her neighborhood so that the residents “are not forgotten” has said that “between the prefect, the metropolis, the department and the elected officials, there are people who speak for the Vésubie … but inhabitants are afraid of not having their voice.”
Covid And The Wine Industry
With Covid and lockdowns this year, Elizabeth says her “income has been devastated” but she is no longer travelling on a weekly basis, which was part of her work as a senior wine consultant. “I have been very busy working online, writing mostly for trade magazines to support the struggling wine industry and to help vineyards.”
She launched a weekly Instagram live chat with a wine colleague called #iloverocknrosé.
With more people staying put this holiday season, it could be a time to discover local wines. “Of course, a glass of bubbly – a Pink Prosecco has just been launched by the appellation. Villa Sandhi – is lovely. I increasingly find sparkling wines are better if decanted, not too cold and in a normal, not flute glass brings out the fruit.
“I am a great fan of sweet and fortified wines, they feel very special as they are not part of everyday drinking. Although I do not eat foie gras, a sweet wine with cheese, salty nibbles, dessert or on its own really is heart-warming.
“I taste a lot of rosé, L’irreductible from Domaine Bégude in Bandol is great for winter, and if you have leftovers – mulled rosé is delicious – more delicate and the chance for more fragrant spices.”
When The Storm Passes
When the rain stopped at 4 pm on October 4, the main street of Saint-Martin-Vésubie was a flood of water and rocks. “The village square, full of firemen, was strangely silent. My son and I walked to the Vésubia sports centre and saw the size of the muddy torrential river,” Elizabeth narrates.
“I think that was when it first hit us. The park, tennis courts, car park had all gone. We saw the petrol station fall – in my memory in slow motion, none of the panic or hysterics you think – there were about five of us in shocked silence. The gendarmerie has gone, the brewery, builders’ yards… the cemetery is going… someone shouted “GET OFF THE BRIDGE!” …. We were still in slow motion.
“We went home and saw the level of the Madone river at the bottom of our garden had risen dangerously. My husband still thought the biggest problem was water coming into the cellar. Without power, we lit the fire, opened the fridge carefully, ate dinner by candlelight and closed the shutters to hide the noise of the rocks crashing down the river.”
The next day, Elizabeth and the rest of town faced the damage. “The village was completely silent, everyone just looking at the size of the river, the number of houses gone. We had no electricity, no water, no WiFi for texting, no phones … A recently widowed friend lost her house and everything and she and her kitten came to stay with us.”
Four days later, electricity generators were flown in and mobile phones re-connected but they had no water for three weeks. “It will take at least six months to repair the roads and some of the structures of the buildings. “I think the disaster has hit the local French more as many come from arrierè-pays families and have spent childhood holidays up here. The expat community seems very unresponsive to the disaster. I am on many expat Facebook groups no mention while on French groups, people are very involved,” says Elizabeth Gabay.
All images are courtesy of Elizabeth Gabay.