It’s getting colder in Paris, but there is much to look forward to with the changing of the seasons.
THIS morning, after I dropped the girls off at school, I walked briskly back home to our apartment. My hands dug deep into the pockets of my coat, my breath visible in the cold morning air, I fantasised about a bowl of hot noodles waiting for me on the kitchen table ... kuey teow th’ng preferably, cili padi on the side. In our little street was a delivery truck filled with packs of firewood. There were no noodles waiting for me, but my kitchen was warm and cosy.
I need to deal with the fact that summer is indeed over. After all, the heating in our apartment has been turned on since a couple of weeks ago. We don’t use firewood, but lots of people do. And we adjusted our clocks backwards by one hour at the end of October, putting an end to summer daylight savings.
It’s a concept alien to us in Malaysia, but the idea of daylight savings was conceived as early as the 18th century, although it was really only implemented in the early 1900s. Then, it was more a matter of conserving candles and coals.
Today, long summer days allow us to shop, do sports, dine, do whatever we do outdoors, and just generally give us the impression that we have an extra hour of daylight in the evening. It was a bit difficult to try and explain the concept to the children. They couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea, questioning how we could possibly add an extra hour to the day. It was also a bit more difficult to shoo them off to bed, as it was still light at nine in the evening.
Well, with the days now getting shorter and shorter, shorts and slippers have given way to pullovers and thick coats, usually in a sombre colour, as though we were mourning. Mourning summer.
The morning ritual of the children getting dressed for school (the school uniform is a thing of the past for France and the idea itself for most French people is an affront to their liberty) is punctuated with exclamations from me: “Have you got an undershirt?”, “That pullover is too light”, “How many layers have you got on?”, “Those socks won’t do!”, “Are you warm enough?”, “Where’s your scarf?” and “You’re not leaving home without your gloves.”
And just as we leave the building, “Are you warm enough?”
Alright, I shall snap myself out of this morbid train of thought and stop grieving.
Looking on the positive side of things, autumn is often thought of (thanks to Keats’ Ode To Autumn,perhaps) as the climax of summer. It signifies not the demise of summer but fresh beginnings and the planting of new life. Literally.
It’s the best time to plant a tree or a bulb for next spring. We did exactly that with the children at their grandfather’s house in the country. We decided to pick a fruit tree that would bear fruit around the time we are usually there, so as to be able to enjoys its spoils. It’s a tradition we intend to keep: planting a tree a year. We are lucky to have a country escape, and we head there during the warmer months when we can.
We were there just at the start of autumn, which is also usually the opening of the hunting season or what we say “la chasse” in French. Although it isn’t exactly the Wild West, hunters here outnumber those of most other countries’ in Europe. Apparently it’s the second most popular sport after football (according to France’s second-largest newspaper, Le Figaro).
After a pause of six months to allow animals to reproduce and grow, hunting season reopened this year to even bigger numbers. Hunters in France come from all social backgrounds, not like some countries where it is only practised by the gentry. You won’t find me going native on this one. I get enough sport walking to the butcher for my meat. And there is no risk of shooting myself in the foot. Plus, I prefer my meat slaughtered, cut and readied by someone else, thank you very much.
In the village where my father-in-law’s house is, we could hear echoes of shots in the mornings. Even sporty Monsieur decided that a bike ride in the vineyards in the foggy mornings may not be a good idea. No way he could be mistaken for a bird nor a boar, but you never know.
So, if you are out for a stroll in the French countryside this autumn, I recommend you cast aside your fashion instincts for this season’s very-in animal print motifs and instead opt for some bright can’t-miss-me-neon colours. That was exactly what I did when I went to pick some figs and nuts from the garden. With my bright yellow boots, blue scarf and pink raincoat on, I cut quite the striking figure and I quote my fashion guru, my seven-year old daughter, “Who wants to be coordinated? It’s boring to be coordinated.” Better be safe than coordinated, may I add.
What’s great about living with the four seasons are the different things to look forward to each season. In the summer, we spend a lot of time outdoors away from the city. We take our velos and bike through villages and vineyards, fervently looking out for wild berries. Soon enough, the girls and I get left behind, the corners of our mouths stained a deep red – a giveaway to our berry stops. Monsieur, in the meantime, waits impatiently for his greedy pack that marvels at the abundance of wild berries to be found. It’s like coming upon trees and trees of rambutan, and it’s free for all!
Picking wild mushrooms is an important part of the French autumn calendar, which brings great excitement. Families plan expeditions to woodlands (forget about Euro Disney) and even take time off in earnest pursuit of this edible fungi.
We missed out this autumn, but I’m really looking forward to doing it with the children next time around. The mushroom season is relatively short, and is taken very seriously.
Everyone has his own theory on how to find mushrooms, but will be reluctant to share this information with you. They are just as secretive about where they find their mushrooms. Being total novices to mushroom-finding (but not mushroom-eating), the girls and I will need to educate ourselves on the different varieties and those that are good to eat. We already have a little guidebook on that. We can also take them into a pharmacy and be advised on their edibility.
Gathering apples and nuts is also very much an autumn activity. We spent a Sunday afternoon at some friends’ place recently and came away with bags of apples and walnuts we collected in their garden. My twodemoiselles are as different as night and day – so one was quite happy to have her fingers soiled gathering walnuts while the other decided a game of chess in front of an open fire was more her thing.
Autumn feels slow, soft and drowsy. It’s the time to roast chestnuts or toast marshmallows. A time when the sunset blends in with the reddening landscape. A time to jump into piles of raked leaves. A time to make a bonfire. It almost makes me want to cosy down on my couch and re-read Keats’ Ode To Autumn: “Season of mists and yellow fruitfulness, Close-bosom friend of the maturing sun ...”
After all, I have time. It’s not yet winter and yes, we are warm enough, for now ...