A strange thing happens in France when the fire-wood runs low. Deserted villages and small quiet rural towns breathe a sigh of relief and disgorge winterized humans into the pale spring sunshine. This seasonal migration from a central, warm winter room deep in the depths of a house where much of France seems to hibernate for months on end, happens during March.
Suddenly, it is not just a frost-bitten cluster of parents outside the school gates and the odd passing customer in the warm boulangerie who say ‘Bonjour’, but a whole swarm of people, gazing with joy into warm sunshine and planting the first geraniums outside their windows. Pavements echo with footsteps, open doors beckon into comfortable houses, and elbows appear haphazardly on open windows in passing cars. Black becomes the ‘old’ colour and spring bursts forth in gardens and freshly-worn clothes.
For me, this is the great magical moment of the French year, for winter in France is a strange state of affairs. Many French houses do not have a boiler and central-heating system, but instead employ two main methods to heat their homes. The first method is the age-old tradition of solid fuel heating. This method starts in early summer, when the menfolk of the home chop trees down, or buy trees that have been already chopped down, which are then cut and shaped into the relevant sized logs by means of a glittering array of garden implements from gardening stores – electrical and hydraulic tools appear in garages and woodsheds, and the average man suddenly becomes a seasoned logger. The countryside resounds to the shrill of saws, the hammering of repairs to wood-piles, and the dull thunk of the log-splitter. Much of the house is then shut down in autumn and sealed off, and winter is passed in one room and a kitchen heated by a roaring log-fire.
The second method is a modern one though, whereby the old family house that has survived for centuries on the aforementioned winter diet of logs is sold off, and a new home with insulation is bought, heating arrangements being spiced up with judicious use of electric radiators. The old family house is then sold to buyers from the UK and winter becomes a good time to laugh at the new folk’s attempts to keep warm with wet firewood bought by mistake. However, to enjoy the magical seasonal moment of France’s year, it is only necessary to buy wet firewood once. One learns quickly, or so I hear!
Susan Hays writes the French lifestyle blog www.ourfrenchoasis.com