Service d'été, they call it, summer timetable. It comes in about May and lasts until la rentrée in early September, when summer holidays end and the schools go back. Service d'été means
Service d'été, they call it, summer timetable. It comes in about May and lasts until la rentrée in early September, when summer holidays end and the schools go back. Service d'été means you start work, particularly if you're employed in active outdoor work like building, at about 5.30 in the morning, just as dawn is breaking. Halfway through the morning you break for coffee and a bite to eat, maybe some slices of sausage or mountain ham sandwiched in a baguette and an orange, and you work on till 12.30 or 1 o'clock, when you finish for the day. The exact hours depend on your contract with your employer, very important in French labour laws, and whether you're subject to the 35 hour week, the maximum anyone is allowed to work in France if their company has more than a handful of employees.
The object is to avoid the summer heat. Even we in our modest way follow the service d'été, throwing off the covers as the dawn chorus starts and buckling down to the day's demands before the sun and the flies make energetic movement a torture. The first of the service d'été tasks is to open all the doors, shutters and windows to let the early morning cool in, a magically sweet air that floods through the house like a tingle down the spine. Once the cool is in we do our best to keep it in and the sun out, closing doors and windows and leaving the shutters with the merest sliver of daylight showing through.
We learnt this, as most of life's really vital lessons are learnt, the hard way. We truly believed, during summer holidays in France in the years before we came to live here, that the universal shutters were a quaint survival from days when glass was a luxury, a picturesque encumbrance prettifying the country cottages we used to take for two or three July weeks, which naturally we would have booked through French Connections if it had existed then. And as for windows opening inwards, why, that was yet another case of Gallic perversity, something you tolerated with an amused smile, like shameless queue-jumping or double parking. So in our holiday cottage all the windows and all the doors stayed wide open all day, shutters stayed permanently fastened back, the kids finally stopped girning and bellyaching about the heat at 2 o'clock in the morning and everybody slept in a desperate muck-sweat. And the village shop or the local supermarket did a roaring trade in fly-papers, those revolting strips of glued paper you unwind and hang from the ceiling until they're as black as the inside of a Garibaldi biscuit. For the kids counting dead flies was probably the highlight of the French holiday experience.
Service d'été brings with it another inestimable benefit, something so un-British that the word for it doesn't exist in English and we've had to borrow from the Spanish: SIESTA. Down here in the deep South the practice has been given a French dressing: faire la sieste, to make the siesta, explains why so many houses go so quiet after lunch in high summer. Faire la sieste is more thorough-going than just taking a quick zizz in an armchair, though. Most siesta buffs get themselves fairly and squarely into bed. (What else goes on is anybody's guess. There was a curious theory advanced in the lifestyle section of one of the English Sunday papers that Frenchwomen stayed so slim as a result of sex in the afternoon. Tout est possible, everything is possible, of course, especially conjecture.)
Our attempts to drop off the other afternoon were continually frustrated. Every time the blessed tide of sleep was about to lap over us an infernal buzzing started up by the window, indeed in the window frame itself. We put up with it for a bit, hoping it would go away, but after thirty minutes of sleep deprivation I got up to investigate.
All our windows, which came from a national chain of joinery suppliers called Lapeyre, have two or three 5-millimetre holes drilled in the bottom rail of the frame, leading into a channel for drainage and ventilation, and I don't suppose that whoever designed them ever gave a thought to the insects his or her holes would provide an Ideal Home for. I opened the window and there was . . . but I'd better go back a few months.
We opened a window downstairs earlier in the year to discover, in the base of the frame, some tiny shards of the most delicate, finger-nail-thin pottery and at least a hundred dead spiders. Twenty years earlier the kids would have amused themselves counting them, and the Great Spider Massacre would have found its way into the loom of childhood legend, but we hoovered the lot up, ex-spiders and shards, unable to explain how they'd got there.
Fast forward to our non-siesta. On opening the bedroom window there was a small wasp, making tiny mud capsules and a lot of noise. No spiders, though. So, this was the culprit. I watched for a moment until it - she, actually - buzzed off to garner more mud from the ditch. Or maybe the service d'été kicked in. Anyway, the noise stopped, peace reigned and we drifted off.
I looked the wasp up later and discovered an extraordinary sequence. She's called Trypoxylon figulus. When she's ready to lay eggs she finds a hollow stem or a rock crevice or even a Lapeyre window. She collects jawfuls of mud which she sculpts into little vases. She also collects small spiders, which she paralyses with her sting. When she has collected enough to fill the vase, she lays an egg in it and seals it with a little mud cap. Days later, the grub hatches and finds itself in its own private larder. It nourishes itself on whatever juices are to be found in spiders, and when it's ready it bursts out of its vase, scattering desiccated spider cadavers like so many empty Cow and Gate cartons and starts the cycle over again.
Our Trypoxylon figulus wasn't like ordinary black and yellow wasps. She was very French, dark as chocolat noir and very slender, not to say svelte. What woman wouldn't be, with such a high-protein diet? And with making good use of the afternoons, to be sure.