When the post lady took over from M Mer she announced that she would no longer be coming round with the calendrier des PTT. There was a certain amount of consternation. This inappropriately named item (the PTT no longer exists – we are supposed to call it La Poste – and we are talking here about much more than a calendar) is an essential staple of every rural home. In old photographs you will see one on the mantelpiece of even the most basic farm kitchen, displaying nothing else in the line of comfort or decoration except perhaps a few holy pictures and a palm cross which has seen better days, stuck behind the clock.
The distribution of these calendars follows a time honoured tradition. From mid November onwards you are likely to hear a knock on the door and open up to find two blokes you have never set eyes on before, who are collecting for the éboueurs, the firemen, the Catholic parish or La Poste. All but the first, (beware of scams says the Refuse Collectors’ Union and always demand to see the photo ID and number of the lorry – as if one would), offer a calendrier or almanach and expect a small donation, which they use to buy gifts for needy firefighters, postmen or whatever and their families. The reason the post lady announced that she would be discontinuing the practice has to do with the fact that, here in the country, it is customary to invite the callers into the kitchen and offer them a canon or two. As a woman she felt that this was a bit inappropriate. Pace the feminists she might be right since, somewhat like carol singing in English villages, a round of the whole commune tests both the head and the liver and needs to be spread over at least a month.
These compact publications, adorned with affecting pictures of puppies or fearless pompiers tackling a blaze, contain a wealth of indispensable information and are still useful in the age of Google. The calendar itself lists the phases of the moon, seasons, solstices and equinoxes, saints’ days, national holidays and school vacations in the various administrative zones of the country. The inner pages have maps of the local towns, emergency numbers, the location of hospitals, swimming pools, schools and so on plus a round up of all the local communes with their post codes and population.
For absent-minded husbands there is reminder of wedding anniversaries – cotton, leather, wood and so on, right up to gold and platinum, by way no doubt of expanded polystyrene. There are country remedies such as nettle soup and St Johnswort tea, and infallible ways to rid your house of flies. Information about the precise date on which to pick your beans and medicinal plants is interspersed with conundrums such as “how many teeth does a pike have?”
A world map is included, together with a list of all the French departments with their numbers, including the DOM TOM – those overseas dominions and territories of which France still has a surprising number. The language of flowers is explained (lilac for friendship, jonquils for melancholy, tulips for a declaration) and les fêtes à souhaiter are arranged alphabetically, so that you don’t forget to wish Bonne Fête to Tante Bernadette on February 18th. Then there are household hints: how to take out stains, remove lime scale, how to keep cut flowers longer in their vase and so on.
These calendriers must be the descendants the Almanachs of the 19th century which were full of the same kind of lore, but which also included dubious political sentiments and theory together with distressingly non p. c. cartoons featuring gentlemen in hats and ladies in difficulty.
Even so, a great deal of this information is still of regular use to French people, and not solely to the country dwellers. It is considered absolutely normal, at the end of the nightly TV news and weather forecast, that we are told whose which saint’s day is coming up tomorrow along with the exact time of sunrise and sunset, and many people still regulate their daily activities by the phases of the moon. Such wisdom decrees that your hair will grow better if you have it cut when the moon is waxing, you should plant root vegetables during the waning moon and those which grow above ground when it is waxing. The calendar is anxiously checked to note if the year is one of thirteen moons, generally considered a bad omen for crops and gardeners (the next will be in 2015).
In spite of our post lady’s dereliction, for 2014 we have one from our Parisian postman and another from the Parish of Arlebosc, so we are all set for the what the year will bring.
Happy New Year to you all – and by the way, a pike has 700 teeth!