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A New Start
Summer vacation is over for most French people. November is here and a sort of sluggish Indian summer has settled over Burgundy. For the younger generation it is a new start. For those of us who, as my companion would put it, “have simply been younger a little longer” a touch of nostalgia seems to coincide with night falling once again by 6 pm.
Meanwhile, the local farmers’ corn and wheat are harvested and the new crops already sprouted. There will soon be wisps of smoke among the rows of vines in the nearby Chablis vineyards as December pruning commences. The village cows are tucked into their barns for winter. The swallows and tree-bending starlings have bid farewell to Burgundy until next spring. Only the leaves on the forest trees are late in fallling.
Located on that narrow route used by the ash-gray cranes each autumn to migrate south from Scandanavia to where they will winter in Spain and Morocco, we are patient observers, each year, of the noisy overhead flight by hundreds of these birds at a time. You can share what we experience here. Now, as the December solstice approaches, dry wood gathered in the forest is stacked high for the fireplaces, a plentiful supply of walnuts, the first in four years, lies stowed away on shelves along with freshly dried cêpes, jars of quince jam, red apples, butternut squash and yellow pumpkins. The freezer is full. In a word, we’re ready to hibernate until March.
Watching, once again, Albert Lamourisse’s The Red Balloon (1956) here the other evening, I drifted back to when I arrived in France in the ’60s. At that time, Paris buses still had platforms, sidewalks were lined with peddlers’ fruit and vegetable carts and, as in the film, the streets of the French capital charried untold litter. It’s difficult not to muse over how so many things have changed in France since then. Cell-phones were a thing of the future and landline phones a luxury. There was only one TV channel and it was in black and white. The métro had wooden seats and metal wheels; it smelled of burnt rubber and two women sat all day at the entrance to each platform punching your ticket. Charles deGaulle was still President of the Republic, though not for long. May ’68 was already pointing its nose around the corner with endless strikes and trade union demonstrations in the streets of the capital, sometimes on a near weekly basis.
Early Education French Style
As a student in the ’60s, I lived in the 14th arrondissement near the Porte d’Orléans. The building, which had once been a farm, housed several artists’ studios. There was a closed off “well” in the paved courtyard that had formerly served to grow button mushrooms (champignons de Paris) and a stairway, which led down from the cellar to the Catacombes and other underground passages, had been used by the Resistance movement during the War. My apartment overlooked the busy avenue du Gal Leclerc, but I was lucky enough to have access to a garden where I could plant whatever I wished. Or at least I thought so.
Arriving home one October afternoon with a potted chrysanthemum intended for the courtyard’s flower bed, I was immediately called to order by the owner of the building. I could plant all the tulips, daffodils, honeysuckle on the grated fence, and pansies that I liked, but planting chrysanthemums in the garden was strictly a “faux pas”. Those beautiful yellow and brown pompoms, sold everywhere during October, were intended only for cemeteries. A religious symbol, they would resist the cold winds of November and continue to adorn the family tombs from All Souls Day (La Toussaint) until the first winter frost set in. Looking back now on those times of first discovering the sometimes subtile differences between US and French culture, I can’t help smiling.
Never Tell a Lie
In August of 2002 I returned to my teaching job here in Burgundy after a six year sabbatical leave back in hometown California. Before leaving the West Coast, I innocently gave a piece of “sound” advice to my best friend A.R. who was planning an up-coming move to France. I explained to her in detail why she “mustn’t plant chrysanthemums in the Fall”, since mums were strictly a religions symbol, and that “nobody, but nobody, decorated their houses or yards in December”, Christmas, in France being, just as strictl, a discrete “family” event.” She listened attentively to every word I said and, once she arrived in France, concluded that I had totally missed the boat!
Back in Burgundy, force was to admit that a number of things had changed in six years. OK, I had grown used to US stores being open 24 hours 7/7 and had forgotten that bakeries in France closed from 1 to 4 pm, but the round-a-bouts which had sprouted up everywhere during my absence, replacing stop lights and intersections, were totally unexpected. And where were the long lines of cars waiting for an assistant to pump their gas? The gas stations, like those in the US, had all become “Do it yourself” and suddenly my French ATM card now worked at virtually every pump 24 hours a day!
Worse still, whether in baskets attached to lamp posts, around trees and fountains or crowded into massive beds on the towns’ squares, chrysanthmums had, in six years, moved on out of the cemeteries and overflowed in colorful clumps just about everywhere. I tried to ignore A.R.’s quizzical, “Are you sure you meant Burgundy?” and, needless to say, we would both soon discover that, in the meantime, just as in the US, Christmas in France had also become an “outdoors” event!
“Happy” Day of the Dead
Nonetheless, back in the ’60s such things as Halloween were still pretty much unknown to the common of French mortals and remained as such well into the ’80s and ’90s. Once my degree behind me in the ’70s, I had moved to the Center of France, married and become the proud mother of “the King’s choice” (Le choix du Roi), first a son, then a daughter. Nonetheless, I hadn’t forgotten my West Coast childhood. While theFrench only hid chocolate eggs at Easter, our children also hunted for hard-boiled eggs US style and, when October rolled around, carving a pumpkin into a Jack O’ Lantern was a tried family tradition.
Our son was going on 9 and attending Catechism one day in October when the village catechist asked her charges what French people put on the graves for November 1st. Expecting everyone to chime in “chrysanthemums”, to her shocked surpriseour son raised his hand and proposed innocently “A pumpkin?” It took the catechist three weeks to muster up the courage and come to see our son’s grandmother. The children’s father had to explain that one.
Nowadays, one look at the tons of candy, masks, costumes and Trick or Treat bags offered for sale in the local Intermarché store throughout October, with witches and Jack O’Lanterns still up in November at the same time as the Christmas decorations, it is impossible not to acknowledge that those days are a thing of the past.
Even more surprising, for the first time this year, with no local commerces to promote, the local village has sprouted a huge Jack O’ Lantern on the main square and the village vegetable stand down the road has created a Halloween scene full of Jack O’Lanterns and spider webs, also still up in November. No doubt about it, Halloween has come to stay.
Scarier Than Halloween
But take my word for it, far scarier than Halloween will ever be were those first Autumn years, in the ’70s, picking and eating wild mushrooms in the woods. Brought up to be a typical middle-class SFBA girl, I was told that wild mushrooms were a definite “no-no”… But when you marry into a French family living in the Berry region of France you do like the… Duponts do? You eat your mother-in-law’s wild mushrooms.
Actually, I have to admit, that a wild mushroom education did come fairly quickly. You simply learn not to tempt fate and touch anything you’re not 100% certain of. If local clubs and exhibits aren’t enough, most all pharmacists in France take a year of micology at University and remain open to looking over and readily giving advice on whatever you’ve gathered separately in your baskets. I guess it has worked. Forty years later we’re still here to tell the story, as are all those who have shared, until now, our tons of succulent cêpes over the years!
By the way, speaking of chrysanthemums, I just got a deal at the supermarket last week, six of them at half price. They’re already decorating our garden during these days of unusually late Indian Summer. I guess, even at our age, it’s never really too late to move on with the times?