When I opened the windows to pull closed the shutters this evening I caught the tang of woodsmoke in the air. With only three or four days of blisteringly hot weather after our return from a summer in Thailand to acclimatise by, the clouds rolled in, and in typical Normandy style, we begin to live the four seasons in a single day. One minute finely driven early morning mist was making us shiver, the next, the heat of the midday sun was burning our faces, and then torrents of rain were abundently watering the last of the flowers. Some of the weeds that thrived during our summer absence had certainly allusions to becoming trees, and were towering over our heads!
The “rentrée”, or return to school was upon us, a moment of great excitement and trepidation, but also of financial ruin! The “rentréé” requires an inordinate quantity of school supplies to be bought, and supermarkets over the whole of France have aisle upon aisle groaning under the weight of everything from exercise books to staplers, passing by sticky-back clear plastic covering for text-books, and the all important “agenda”. My children, who normally cannot bear to be dragged from home to suffer a trip to the “grande surface”, as the supermarket is known, now nag me to get the car out, because the choice of diary, key to the school french year, (and woe betide you if you don’t have one) is the most important ‘cool factor’ choice, right there with the most impressive holiday desination on the first day back in the playground. The cost of “fournitures” or school equipment is so great that every year the department of social security sends a payment of “Allocation Rentrée Scolaire” to a large proportion of the population, which amounts to something in the region of 350€ per child. Even now, in the press, there are complaints that this is simply not enough. Behind the scenes in every home there are mothers on hands and knees raiding their childrens pencil cases to try and come up with a full complement of equipment to avoid taking out a second mortgage!
The other aspect of French life in the last days of August is the sudden over-demand for the family doctor’s services. Within days of the start of the school term, all the clubs and sports societies open up for the school year. But where would the French be without a considerable amount of red-tape and paperwork? Each and every sport and each and every child have to be certified with a medical certificate. This means that if you have four children, each doing two sports apiece, the doctor will be writing out 8 medical certificates, and the little doctor’s surgery will be a very crowded room indeed, with a considerable amount of weighing and measuring going on, and the opportunity for each child to lean over their ice-cream expanded waistlines to touch their toes! This may all sound a little odd, but I have to hand it to the French that they are obsessed in monitoring children as they grow, and these seemingly random demands for certification actually detect growth issues in children before they get out of hand. Scoliose (Scoliosis) being one development issue taken very seriously by the French medical system. A quick visit to the xray department for anyone with the whiff of curvature to the spine, and six monthly observation by a specialist offers up another sheaf of certificates to the now very laden parent, and an instruction to the school gives the affected child a locker so that they no longer carry all their books around on their backs.
When the day of the “rentrée” arrives the kids nervously gather in the playground to await their fate. For parents and children alike it is the wonderful opportunity to catch up with friends and chat at leisure after an absence of many weeks. Many mothers and fathers take “congé” (leave) from work just to be part of this fabulous coming together of the community, and all fidgit a little nervously as the headmistress, having finished her “welcome” talk calls the class lists in alphabetical order while the parents muse on whether the latin group will be in the same classes as their friends doing spanish or german, For us, this year the class lists are exceptionally good, and the first evening around the dinner table after school there are happy and some-what relieved faces as friends have been reunited and will be sitting together at neighbouring desks.
Noticeably there is a chill in the air in the evening, and we are disappointed to be reaching for jumpers after a summer of balmy heat. It is the time of year to call in the wood-merchant, and the “rammoneur” (chimney sweep). After a long search to find a wood-merchant happy to deliver a couple of “stères” (as the french call a metre cubed of logs) for the chimney, a friend puts me in contact with her supplier. A phone-call later and the logs are on their way in the back of a “cammionette” (van). The kids are dragged reluctantly from their rooms to help unload them whilst the “Monsieur” tells me where the wood is sourced from, a forest I know locally called “Les Deux Amants” (the two lovers) close to the lake where we often water-ski during the summer.
“9 out of 10 people who order wood for their fire had parents who did the same when they were children” he tells me. “It’s rare to find people who come new to the idea of a wood-fire”
He goes on to describe his summer “Cabane” out in the woods which has no running water or electricity, and I tell him about a little place on Scotland where the shower takes water deviated from a mountain river, and where gas lamps are the only source of lighting. We both sigh that we are back to the rentrée, but happy at the thought of long winter evenings by the fire-side.
The tourist season is still in full flow, the boats will keep coming until the end of October, and I will enjoy these final weeks walking through the city in the autumn sunshine, always mindful to have my umbrella close at hand. But as the gaps between tours becomes greater, I will at long last get time to return to my house restoration project.