When I told my students yesterday that ‘Thank the Lord it was spring tomorrow,’ they looked at me as though I was dribbling the slimy filling from a half eaten Ginsters Cornish pasty all over their notes.
‘No, Oggers,’ they said in unison consulting their online agendas. ‘Spring begins on Thursday 21st March not the 1st.’
I mentioned this weird French concept of seasons and dates in Lyon 55 – Equinox:
‘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 if the next 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.’
Those same coats, scarves and gloves are still being worn today and will be up to the Equinox on the 21st. As far as the French are concerned, we are still in mid-winter. Governed not by the unpredictability of the weather, but by the inflexible blocks and columns of the modern calendar.
Admittedly, it’s not warm at the moment. In fact, it’s ball-breakingly cold. But that’s not the point. If it was 25 degrees today, I bet you all a fresh 50 Euro note, that a sizable proportion of the population would be wearing a coat, hat, scarf and gloves. If I had the gall to ask them why, they would politely shiver and answer, ‘C’est l’hiver,’ as the blazing sun bore down on their sweltering bodies.
My group yesterday were shocked by my short-sleeved shirt and linen jacket attire. That juxtaposed fiercely with their thick sweaters and polar jackets. We looked like extras in a film studio. Them having just come off the set of The Snowman. Me, an episode of Miami Vice, minus the shades. When I asked them to turn off the heating, I heard knives being sharpened. The cables hanging down from the overhead projector quickly crafted into a perfectly formed noose.
‘The heating stays on, Oggers,’ they said in unison giving the cord a firm tug. ‘Until 21st March. Comprenez?’
It’s at this time of year where every Frenchman, woman, child, horse and dog has a cold. Most have had it since November, others since the year before, some, all their lives.
As I wrote in Lyon 58 – Nationality, France is a country of self-confessed, pill-popping, hypochondriacs. Hence the ludicrous amount of doctors that choke every street like bind weed. If you feel unwell, you go to the doctor. Immediately. Sore neck, sore throat, running nose, dead leg, broken heart, hangover. Doctor.
In the end I managed to convince my students that the seasons were like trains or buses. Sometimes late, sometimes early. Sometimes never at all. Winter to Summer. Summer to winter. Autumn and spring lost somewhere out in the North Sea never to be seen again.
Even in February, I told them, it can be spring: watching the thawing of the land, the lightening of the days, the daffodils pushing through the fleshy earth. The first cider of the year. Sitting on a rock on a clear night watching the sun go down.
The group fell into my reverie and were silent for a minute until Alain, the finance guy, destroyed the moment by telling us all that in Lille they only drink cider with cake. But only in summer. Never in spring.
I should have guessed.
On ne peut pas avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre
You can’t have your cake and eat it