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.