Monday, May 03, 2010

Fête de Travail


I usually get a few sprigs in a bunch, which alone is enough to fill the room with scent, but this muguet is planted up in a pretty chased metal oval pot, with pink blossoms scattered over the soil.

'I left the roots on,' she said 'so you can plant it afterwards in the garden.'

I'd not said anything, but this, and the hug and the smile I got with it, indicated that M's friend and fellow student, M-H, who reads here, had passed on the word, and she'd wanted to do me a kindness.  That's fine.  It has been good to be among them again, and working.




There are numerous ideas about why people give each other muguet, lily-of-the-valley, on the 1st of May, Fête de Travail, the Labour Day holiday.  Somewhere along the line the two festivals, one ancient and celebrating spring and nature, the other modern and marking historical events, became conflated; one old king, I forget which, gave his courtiers muguet, the emblem of the Ile de France; the red rose was the emblem of the workers' struggle but was replaced here by the lily-of-the-valley for the Labour Day festival, perhaps partly because there aren't yet many roses out yet.  May, full spring, is indeed the time of gloriously perfumed flowers, but also of agitation and change. 



No matter, I've always rather liked festivals which focus on and celebrate relatively simple elements, and resist excessive commercialisation.  Work can be worth honouring, though I have little to do with the workers' struggle these days, and fragrant flowers certainly are. 

Despite the length of time we've been here, and despite growing quickly aware that we had to take the holiday into account when making any plans, because, by and large, la Fête de Travail, personne ne travaille, (no one labours on Labour Day), I must have never, in fact, been out into a town on the day.  Driving into Lamballe on Saturday morning, there were various, mostly elderly, people, setting up with small tables, chairs and buckets, making ready to sell their crop of muguet, which everyone and anyone has the right to do without let or hindrance, tax or paperwork, just for the day.  I also saw, separately, a couple of older ladies looking like they were going visiting, carrying armfuls of lilac, so obviously the celebration has been extended to other fragrant flowers, and with the late spring, not everyone's muguet is flowering yet.


I got to Maxime's and found him home alone, his parents having decamped to visit his sister in Mexico.  I was quietly quite glad of this.   The family are dear friends, who have freely shared their losses, shocks and griefs, along with their joys and celebrations, with me, and if his father or mother had been there, I'd have felt bound to tell them of mine.  As it was, faced with just cheerful Maxime, merry and motivated (although, he categorically assured me, having read the last thing I said about him here, he is not 'a boy in love'...), with his life ahead beckoning, and a much loved sister away in a far country, I had no desire and saw no need to burden him.

He worked hard with me, carefully cracking the grammar exercises from the book, then unscrambling my well-thumbed cards to set out the Rinvolucri story of 'The Woman, the Hypnotist, the Egg and the Baby' ("I want you to relax... I want you to become a hen and lay an egg."), which was pitched just right, so that I could sit back and let him do the work, and the prompts that I gave were only enough to make him think for himself. -"If 'the doctors' is the object of this clause, can it also be the subject of that one?", or " Well, the logic of the grammar is fine, but..." so he would finish my sentence "... but the logic of the story isn't."



After I left him,  I met Iso and Princeling for a walk.  Having taken the holiday into account, I'd got up early and made sandwiches.  Princeling, now two and a half, is also working very hard at processing two languages, and is not inclined to commit himself to coming out with either until he's quite certain about them.  But he understands just fine, and was much kinder to Molly than the last time they met.  She on the other hand rather disgraced herself by snarling at him when he came round to her side and took a sandwich from the pile in front of her.  But we all rubbed along fine in the end, and the rain held off. 

Feeding the sweet little ducklings on the lake with the leftover crusts turned out to be somewhat fraught, however, since the mother ducks became very aggressive towards the ducklings not belonging to their own numerous broods, then finished up by fighting one another nearly to the death, as it appeared, and abandoning their young to fly off and continue the conflict on  another part of the lake.  Molly had to be held down to prevent her from joining the fray, and Princeling nearly threw Ooh-Aah the monkey in the lake along with a crust of bread he was holding in the same hand.  So that wasn't quite as idyllic as it had promised to be.

We continued nevertheless, and made our way into town to find somwhere that might be open to serve us coffee.  The terrace of a pizza restaurant finally came up with the goods, and even offered us a choice of desserts including chocolate mousse, so Princeling got to go home with a chocolaty face, which seems to be de rigueur whenever I go out with them. I forgot to bring the camera.

A somewhat merry man, possibly having enjoyed his festive lunch, was capering and calling from the pavement, proffering small bunches of muguet at a euro apiece. Iso had earlier observed that she had never actually given or received the flowers, so I took his last one with the change I had in my pocket and gave it to her.  I think one of the things I also like about the custom is it isn't related to any particular family or romantic relationship, has no religious significance, it is simple, light gesture between friends, perhaps between workmates, as light and pleasant and sweet as the fragrance and appearance of the flowers themselves.  Iso was one of my earliest real friends here, she kept me sane when we were doing a horrendous job at a technical lycée together years ago; she was very young and very brave and very lovely, (she still is,  'une muguette', one might say!), she made me laugh and left things , like a copy of 'The Girl with the Pearl Earring, in my locker.  The friendship has lasted through not a few changes, and I've always been glad that I took on the job because of it.

So, here's to muguet,  in celebration of work and courage and solidarity and friendship, and simply for the love of its fragrance and beauty.  M's gorgeous pot of it is beside me on the bookshelves now, and will continue to fill the room with its perfume in the days to come.


16 comments:

Sarah Standalone said...

Beautiful, words and photos

Barrett Bonden said...

I was preparing to do my best on the subject of the muguet when suddenly I came upon "If 'the doctors' is the object of this clause, can it also be...?" and I had a little choke. Can I be the only person in the world who can get tearful over a technical explanation of the way language works? For more than twenty years I've been taking French lessons (latterly concentrating on specific novels) and occasionally British friends have wished they could speak French as I do. Parenthetically I should add that because my idiomatic French is not very good I bend conversations to my will, rather than joining in. The point is that those who want an early fix usually avert their eyes when it comes to subject, object, subjunctive talk. In fact it's not only necessary to embrace subject/object talk you have to love it. It is the language of language. So if I turn away from your affectionate disquisition on the paradox of Fete de travail it is because you have stirred something stronger. A post that started out well and then suddenly spat out a kernel which, I suppose, I have taken personally. Thanks.

Plutarch said...

I didn't know about the custom of giving a brin de muguet on May 1. How delightful to give or to receive so exquisite a gift without spurious meaning or obligation. May 1 was for a while a public holiday in the UK wasn't it, but it didn't last. And we have to have a boring old bank holiday Monday instead. Who cares about banks having a holiday any longer!The shops here open regardless. I am as touched by the muguet, meanwhile, as BB is by the grammar tale. The language of language, I like that.

Rosie said...

one of my students also gave me some lily of the valley...I didnt realise the custom was widespread

A Write Life said...

Beautiful photos. Very creative!

Lucy said...

Thank you.

Sarah - hello and welcome.

BB - me too, I love grammar. One of the advantages of teaching English to French students is that educated French at least are fairly grammar literate, and don't run screaming from the very idea. The 'I want you to do' construction is technically known as the propositional infinitive, and though it seems thoughtlessly easy to us, is one of the persistent sticking points for French learners of English, since their impulse always is to think in terms of 'vouloir que' + subjunctive. Once learned it applies to many other verbs, 'allow', 'invite', 'persuade', even 'tell'('because I told you to!), but then they get worried about remembering which, and 'tell' always gives them problems because of their confusion of it with 'say'. Along with phrasal verbs, which again are thoughtlessly easy for native speakers, it's one of the biggest nightmares for them.

Plutarch - I in turn am delighted at surprising you about anything French, as that is a rarity...

Rosie - yes, we've had some from someone most years, the neighbours used to give it to us in the early years, and my students often have, but I've not seen ot being sold by people like this before. I vaguely remember reading about it at school.

Lucy said...

A Write Life - thanks, you snuck in there!

J Cosmo Newbery said...

They are all good but I love that first photo.

Barrett Bonden said...

A little personal jewel. I have always wanted to use phrase as an adjective and you've beaten me to it. I shall print out your comment and carry it with me until its subject has become totally instinctive. Many thanks.

Meggie said...

You are so lucky to have it! I was bemoaning the fact today, that we cannot grow the lovely Lily of the Valley. My Grandmother loved it dearly and prized the scent, of the delicate blooms.

Dale said...

How lucky, to have you as a teacher!

Isabelle said...

I wouldn't plant that lily of the valley if I were you. I planted some a few years ago and now it's EVERYWHERE. I wouldn't be surprised if it's reached Brittany by now... And it's hard to pull up. Gah.

Lovely post, though.

Zhoen said...

It grew along the fence in my backyard as a child, along with pansies, and I loved both.

Rouchswalwe said...

These lily-of-the-valley are playful little things as you have captured them. There is movement throughout the post, almost as though they are dancing and peaking through the leaves to attend to your English lesson.

Beth said...

Lucy, first, I'm so sorry about your sister. There are no other words; I'm glad if the time by the sea helped you, and know that your love of beauty and beautiful spirit will make as much sense of this as anyone's can.

I loved this post about muguet de bois. When my mother died, in late May four years ago, I filled the house with all I could pick from a bank she had cultivated over the years, and they will always remind me of her. I didn't know about the Labor Day tradition, but, oddly enough, here in French-speaking Quebec, I got by community garden plot on May 1st and the only flowers left in it, by the previous gardener, was a patch of lilies of the valley, which I was thrilled and surprised to take over as my own. Your photos are beautiful.

HLiza said...

Hi Lucy, have to admit that I didn't read all in this post..chasing time..just would like to say hi and send my love to you..