Burgundy Reflections

Burgundy Reflections
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…

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