We’re getting to that time of year again…whisper it… Christmas! I know this, not because of the unrelenting volume of Christmas ads on the TV but because I have had the first bundle of paperwork from a charity. The foot and mouth painters,which always seems an unfortunate title, have sent thier usual bundle of slightly naff Christmas cards and a calendar. Gosh, how churlish I feel writing that but one must be honest. I shall send off a cheque even tho the cards were unsolicited and stick them in the card box to be used in the event of running out of my preferred and, in my opinion, more tasteful ones. More about the calendar to follow…
The next bundle to arrive was from the guide dogs charity which I do support. A pen, a notebook, a few Christmas postcards featuring guide dogs, bien sur, with a festive message in braille alongside the printed one. Every year the teacher in me thinks what a useful classroom resource even if it is nearly twenty years since I last taught six year olds the story of Louis Braille. But the most significant thing in the bundle is the calendar. This one is on A4 card and has useful score lines so it can be folded and propped on a shelf somewhere.
When we first came to live here it was in late September and I remember being surprised by the proliferation of calendars at every turn. Of course, calendars are a staple of Christmas just as slippers are or joky onesies but here in France they are seemingly the gift you cannot be without.
Of course, not all are free and deciding how much to pay caused some head scratching for us at the beginning. Our initial experience of this was when the pompiers arrived at the door around the beginning of our first December. Two smiley chaps in uniform stood there obviously assuming we knew the drill. We didn’t. It soon became clear we were expected to buy one of their calendars and to pay whatever we felt was appropriate. This led to a whispered conversation a deux in English hoping we weren’t being understood.
We’re old hands now and invite them in, offer ‘un verre (never accepted) and hand over some notes. Ever since we had an unfortunate incident with the flue pipe at the back of the woodburner catching fire necessitating my calling an emergency number for only the second time in my life, we greet them with heartfelt thanks and a more generous donation. Especially as the majority of our local firefighters are voluntary. I was chatting to a neighbour in the bricolage shop when his pager went off. He headed for the exit immediately, shouting excusez-moi over his shoulder as he went! The calendar is a very professional one, full of smiling pompiers, fire engines and bowsers and photos of emergency situations. I use it to record bookings for our gite.
It was only recently that I realised that the calendar from la poste has disappeared. Our first postlady would always make sure we didn’t miss out. Their calendar was a very informative missive. Not just days and months in its pages but maps of the larger towns in our department, recipes, helpful hints, proverbs related to the weather. There was always a choice available too inasmuch as the different cover pictures. These were a range I can only describe as chocolate box; flowers, kittens, puppies or countryside scenes which included the Pyrenees and Alps, of course. I miss that one but was surprised to see certain of them offered on eBay. I should have kept ours!
Certain shops offer freebie calendars too. These aren’t to be compared with the ones already mentioned. These are the handy to have style, sometimes a simple rectangle of card, printed on both sides and easily slipped into a handbag but more often s folded affair, the business bit inside while the outside carries publicity for the shop and maybe a new year greeting. Our local pharmacy used to have them on the counter but recently they have moved up a notch. When using the pharmacy near Christmas you used to receive a small gift, eau de cologne, then it was shower gel. More recently I have been offered a choice, an eco folding shopping bag or the calendar. I opt for the bag.
Then there are the business calendars. Now these are in a form I had not experienced before. On very stiff cardboard starting out in A4 size but can be bigger, sometimes much bigger. Last year we were given one by the oil delivery man along with the usual printout of the ‘facture’. We got one from the plumber once who came to sort out the boiler.
Until now I have accepted this as just one of those little differences that, as an expat, you notice. But with reconfinement limiting more exciting ways of passing the time, I have pondered why the calendar has become so essential. And I think I may have come up with a possible explanation.
I was chatting about bank holidays recently and trying to explain that the UK bank holidays, in general, are Mondays, neatly tacked onto a weekend. This had never caused me to stop and think until I moved to a country that had its holidays on the allotted date. If it falls on a Monday or a Friday, a cause for a long weekend. If it falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday there is the possibility of a ‘pont’, ie taking a days annual leave on the day in between and getting a four day break. If it falls on a Saturday, not a working day for many, then a gallic shrug but to fall on a Sunday? Quel horreur. So there is a clear necessity to know when the long break possibilities are likely to fall. I have become adept at highlighting all bank holidays on the kitchen calendar…always a version with big boxes for each day so important stuff can be noted, ‘worm cats’, ‘chimneysweep’, payday!
On the subject of bank holidays or jours feries which are often religious holidays another addition to French calendars is the saint days. Every day of the year has an associated saint. Once upon a time French children would be named after the saint who shared his or her birthday. My saints day is 17th January, Rosaline, but as I go by a nickname not many congratulate me on it. But the particular Saint is always mentioned at the end of the TV weather forecast along with the date. Rather sweet, I think.
But I think I have found a much more important reason for all these calendars. School holidays. At the time of retirement there was a heated debate going on in UK schools about the Easter holiday and should it be fixed as due to the fluid nature of when Easter occured there would be either be a short spring term and a long summer one or a long spring term and an Easter holiday that tipped straight into the SATs, obligatory national tests. I have no idea how it sorted itself out but the idea of an Easter holiday that didn’t encompass Easter was a strange concept for those of us at a certain age.
In France it is taken as the norm. The second half of the academic year looks much the same for all students but the first half is a different story, especially to the uninitiated. Despite having a similar population as the UK but with four times the geographical area, there was concern that the ski resorts and other tourist areas couldn’t cope with the press of holidaymakers arriving all at the same time. So for the purposes of alleviating such pressure France is divided into three zones, A,B and C. We are zone C. So now the calendar comes into its own. Close inspection of any one of the forms above will reveal continuous stripes down one side each day/month. Usually blue, green and red, they signify the three zones and the periods allocated for the winter and spring holidays. Without school children these dates have never carried much import for us except when working out when the ski resorts will close. It often seemed that as soon as one colour finished another was waiting to take over. To complicate things further the zones order moves around so one year we may be the last to have our holidays, another year the first. All this only became personal to me when I volunteered for a term time homework club. But I still find it confusing…probably my age!
So, already I have two free calendars but, sadly, I read the other day that, due to covid, the pompiers will not be visiting with theirs. Mind you, with reconfinement and sober reports about a hard winter, I assume there will be no exciting upcoming events to record on the kitchen calendar…other than worm cats!