It rained from about October to the end of May. That isn’t quite accurate. It did not rain at the end of May. It snowed at the end of May. People said it was the longest winter in France since 1917 and the winter of 1917 in France was as miserable as winter gets, for reasons not necessarily meteorological. The one word even Harvey could understand in the weather forecasts was “inundation.” But May came to an end and with that, winter, too, ended. Beginning June 1 and every day since then it has been hot and sunny, skies blue instead of gray, clouds white instead of gray, and our moods sunny instead of, well, instead of gray.
We packed away the down coat liners into plastic bags under our bed, tore the Saran wrap “storm windows” off our windows and prance around in shorts and tee shirts. With the end of the rain the rivers settled down, the canals filled and, voila, it is cruising season again. Through a combination of circumstances, such as the Canal du Centre through southern Bourgogne collapsing in front of us, we’re back on the Canal de Bourgogne again, heading north on the canal down which we traveled south last summer. Deja vu, as the French say, all over again. But better this time. Richer. We barged on through the rain, but the sun makes everything better.
The sounds of spring echo around us. Birds sing in a sexual frenzy, like 16 year old boys gazing love-locked at girls’ field hockey practice. Crickets do the insect version of singing, probably in the same sexual overload. Church bells chime almost constantly, making up for a winter’s tintinnabulations that were drowned out by the roar of wind and rain. and overlying these bucolic sounds is the ever-present roar that is France at this time of year, the gently purring susurrations of … of … of … weed whackers. Months of rain followed by days of sunshine ignited anything green to burst forth in more of everything green. Stand in one place for five minutes barefoot and blades of grass will sprout through your toes. Linger under a bare tree in the sunshine and thirty minutes later you’ll be shaded by 10,000 leaves newly generated. Mother Nature soaked in all that rain like a 48-year-old childless woman on fertility enhancement drugs, fearing that she has one last shot at fecundity, out came the sun and glory hallelujah, photosynthesis happened and Mom Nature shot forth with all she’s got. If it was green yesterday, it is greener, and there’s more of it today.
All France stands united to repel this invasion of undisciplined nature.
Groups of children cluster on sidewalks, staring into the distance, waiting for the government trucks to arrive, trucks that will deliver shiny weed whackers, roaring lawn mowers, scythes, rakes, hoes and other implements of destruction. No day is prouder than when a five-year-old French youth is handed his first tiny weed whacker, barely powerful enough to trim a single blade of grass, or when a young girl tosses her dolls and EZ Bake oven into the recycling bin as she caresses her new mini-mower, always bright pink because France retains the blue-for-boys-pink-for-girls ethos well through the teen years. Boys and girls join men and women as each is assigned his and her designated spot of green to whack, mow, rake and subdue. This army prepares to set off for battle, then pauses, stymied.
Soon, the accoutrements van arrives. This being France, one does not, absolutely can not, just walk out the door and do anything without the correct accessories. Bicycle wheels fail to turn unless the feet on their pedals are shod in shoes specifically constructed for bicycle pedals so that when cyclists alight and attempt to walk to a cafe for coffee they click on the sidewalk and totter as if their ankles were made of wet noodle. Sandra, peddling in her mary jane street shoes, draws a shocked silence. Fishermen stand on the river banks monitoring half a dozen fishing rods, confident that the fish swim from fisherperson to fisherperson selecting the man wearing the best woodland camouflage shoes, socks, pants, jacket and beret from whose hook to snatch bait. Men – meaning any male person over age four – dawdle for twenty minutes every morning selecting which scarve to casually drape around their necks before stepping outside. Street sweepers, men who literally sweep the streets clean with wood-handled brooms with a cluster of sticks tied to the street end, wear ankle-to-throat jump suits in day glo magenta, lime green and safety reflective yellow before stepping off the curb. Harvey, too, “going native” as a fellow bargee alleged, wriggles into his double-zippered coveralls before twirling a paint brush, cutting wood or launching into anything more workmanlike than brushing his teeth.
The Green Team is similarly outfitted: steel-tipped boots so they cannot amputate their toes with their whirling weed-cutting strings; subtle green jump suits covered in pockets and zippers, in shades to blend with Nature so the grass and weeds won’t have time to flee before decapitation; plastic construction hard hats because, well who knows how swinging a weed whacker from side to side is likely to cause some hard object to drop from above; face shields to guard against flying grass blades scarring their cheeks.
As we cruise along the canal we see squads of these people – so heavily disguised and protected that their gender cannot be determined – slowly swinging their weed whackers from side to side, devastating entire fields and hillsides, one field likely to require several days labor a swipe at a time, working with the patience of those French fishermen who gaze at their fishing rods for hour after hour, knowing they are allotted but one fish per year.
They work so hard. They smile and wave back when we smile and wave at them. They take their lunch at noon precisely and return to whacking everything green two hours later. And they do all this while assured that what they cut today will grow back tomorrow.
A skeptic would say this is all just make work to provide employment. But no, we’ve watched as the VNF (the French waterways authority) lock tenders who push and pull lock gates open and closed for us while we apologize for interrupting them from their real tasks of whacking grass that encroaches within a quarter mile of the lock, we’ve watched the first thing these guys do when the lock shuts down for the day and they return to their locktender’s houses for a well-deserved rest. What do they do, you ask? Open a bottle of Bourgogne? Slice a chunk of 18-month-old comte cheese to top today’s baguette? No, no, no. Out comes the lawn mower and every blade of grass on their own locktender’s cottage lawns runs for its life.
This is all about some French thing about controlling Nature. What goes for blades of grass goes double – no, quintuple – for Big Nature. Like for trees. Every Fall trucks roam throughout cities, towns, villages and communes, trucks with moving pneumatic arms like the trucks that repair downed power lines after the hurricane passes. These trucks, however, ignore utility poles, which are generally concrete in France anyway, but stop at every tree. The buckets at the end of the pneumatic arms are stuffed with men, of course dressed in day-glo coveralls, waving chain saws over their heads like pirates leaping to board a Spanish treasure galleon. Within minutes every branch, yes, literally every branch sprouting from the central trunk, lies on the ground around the tree. A squad of these trucks leaves a street lined with what look like giant saguaro cactuses, stubs of arms, headless corpses. No leaves. No branches.
The first time you see these trees, standing naked and embarrassed, you wonder if this is some form of anti-public anti-nature graffiti, wanton destruction for the sake only of wanton destruction. Why doesn’t the government do something about this, you wonder. And why do the men literally disarming and defoliating trees seem to be government employees? Is this some bizarre human Dutch elm disease?
No, no, no. This is France putting nature in its proper place, which is France, but properly accoutred and arranged. What happens is that once the randomness of trees is excised, what is left to grow dutifully grows where it is meant, meant by France herself, to grow. They are creating nothing less than full size municipal bonzai trees. What the Japanese do with teeny tiny scissors to create six inch high spruce trees to adorn their desks at the melting nuclear plant, France does with chain saws on thirty-foot elms lining main streets. And it works. By the end of the year these streets are lined with row after row of giant green lollipops, all identical in size, height, roundness. One variation involves leaving only branches that grow parallel to the street, excising those that grow toward or away from the street. Months later these streets are lined with trees that seem to be holding hands with one another, offering shade a street long and two yards wide.
This well-groomed attitude toward Nature is one of the harmless – unless you happen to be a towering chestnut tree next to the village smithy – quirks that make our wandering somewhat aimlessly through France so fascinating.Oh, but there are so many more. Last Sunday we took the local bus to the ancient town of Vitteaux, primarily because it was supposed to have a great restaurant serving local food to local folks and an authentic flying saucer statue commemorating a recent visitation. We also learned that Vitteaux was known for, besides its central role in French religious history, its brioche, a breakfast pastry. Everybody has to be special for something and we had spent an entire winter in a city known for its onions. (When we tell people we spent the winter in Auxonne the general reaction is that French eye roll maneuver while muttering “oignons, beaucop d’oignons.”) Little did we know that it was not necessarily for the quality of its brioche that Vitteaux earned its place in the history books. It was size. In Vitteaux, size matters. It seems that on August 17, 1991, in the presence of Yves Lanier, president of the French bakers’ Union Commercial and Artisanal, the world’s largest brioche was baked in a specially constructed municipal brioche oven. This briochasaurus rex weighed 141 kilos (311 pounds) and was 3 meters (10 feet) in diameter. It required 1,100 eggs and, among other ingredients, 2 liters of rum. We know all this because not only has the world’s largest brioche oven been preserved since its day of glory 22 years ago, but there is a detailed historic marker adjacent to the oven.
On the other hand, France does maintain its somewhat more legitimate historical artifacts. We rode our bikes to the medieval city of Semur-en-Auxois the other day, and spent the night there at a hotel, the booking of which taught Sandra the correct phrase to request a room with a bath tub: un chambre avec un salle de bain avec bain. Semur was straight from Central Casting’s version of a medieval city with towering towers, ramparts, cobbled streets and a cathedral.
We wandered into the cathedral after dinner, drawn by the sound of a choir coming from inside and were awed by the acoustical mysteries of that favorite chant of Gregorian monks, Swing Low Sweet Chariot. The juxtaposition of a slave spiritual first sung in ramshackle plantation churches resonating through the glory of a medieval cathedral literally choked us up. Once again, the serendipitous mystery of France brought us to a standstill.
But all is not totally spiritual, even next to a thousand year old cathedral. Commerce, sex and a touch of whimsy prevail.
Finally, this week brought a solution to one of the mysteries of France that has puzzled us for the past year. We understand that in France mailboxes are square, not arched as in the U.S. and that they are most likely not “Approved by the Postmaster General of the United States,” as every true American mailbox must declare on its face (the poor Postmaster General, sitting at a desk all day approving and disapproving mailbox designs.) We had never figured out why so many houses, especially in rural areas, have a long skinny tube on the wall next to their front door. French newspapers are not that dimension and, besides, we haven’t noticed any home newspaper deliveries, which would inhibit daily visits to the local tabac, the true source of important news. Then we saw a boulangerie truck jerk to a halt in a cloud of dust in front of a house next to the canal. Out leapt the boulanger, baguette in hand, AND HE RAMMED THE LOAF INTO THE TUBE. Voila. Mystery solved. The “second mailbox” is really the baguette box for those desperate souls who are unfortunate enough to reside in a town without its own boulangerie.
And all that, baguette tubes, gospel in a medieval cathedral, uniforms for weed whacking and the world’s largest brioche as a municipal project, are all parts, vital parts, of the melange of France we’ve come to love.