There is a ritual in the French calendar that is almost impossible to miss. A single event that alters your mood from one of dreaming about ever-lasting summers, to one of deep despair at the thought of frost-bitten hands in the months to come. For people like me who are quite happy to let the sun burn us to ashes like onions on an all-night-burger stall, the spectacle I witnessed last Friday morning was highly disturbing.
Every year on 21st September (the Equinox), the French pack away their summer clothes in the loft, and take out their winter versions. Away go the linen chinos, the Terry towelled vests, the aerated plimsolls. Out come the thick pleated cords, the heavy grey pullovers, the double layered duffle coats complete with scarf, glove and hat combinations. Even the tramps living in the gutters take their cue. Away go the shit soiled free throwaway petrol station T-shirts from 1987. On go the life stained donkey jackets stuffed with paper and sawdust.
Even if on the following day, the concrete slabs of the Berge du Rhone are hot enough to fry an egg on, there is no going back. The boxes are sealed, the lofts nailed shut, the windows battened down. Leaving the entire population to wander round dressed in carpet thick coats and rope length scarves. It’s a good example of how routine and tradition still play a large part in French life. Ruthless observation to codes and practices. Nothing is left to chance.
‘It might be warm for another month,’ Pierre says to Claudine. ‘But as my grandparents did this before the words ‘global’ and ‘warming’ existed, best get the boxes. They say it’s going to be forty degrees tomorrow, but it might not be. There could be a blizzard. You never know.’
And going by what I saw last week walking to work with every woman, man, child and dog padded out like Santa Claus on his way to pick up Rudolph, I could have believed them. This merciless adherence to cosmic custom would have had the most pagan of pagan cultures scratching their heads, and wondering if this entire nation wasn’t stark raving mad.
You may think, I’m exaggerating. Something to write about hey Oggers. Run out of material. Au contraire mes amis. This is real. This actually unfolded before my eyes. I have witnesses as well. Pick out any American, Canadian, Scandinavian, Brit or German and ask them the question:
‘Where did the French go last week?’
‘I don’t know,’ they’ll all answer in tandem looking aimlessly around, ‘They fell into a gigantic pile of scarves, hats and coats and never came back.’