June: Peasants Harvesting Crops, with central Paris in the background, from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
And suddenly, spring is falling away to summer.
After being away from Paris for three weeks, it’s amazing to come back to a place where there are no buds in the trees, but full green leaves, still luxuriant in the as-yet-unestival weather. Still, it's getting warmer. It’s strange not to need a coat or a sweater most days.
Seasons never seemed so clearly demarcated before I came to Paris. Part of that is because most of my later childhood and all of my teen years were spent in Georgia, where you don’t really have spring-summer-fall-winter, but rather: cold mornings hot afternoons and tornadoes, hot, hot and surprisingly cold, less hot.
There are four distinct seasons in New York, but when I lived there, I was a student, and my life tended to be ruled by the university calendar rather than by nature.
No, it wasn’t until I came to live in the City of Lights that I really began to experience seasons. And though Paris does have the four classic ones, I’ve often thought it feels so much more complex.I was musing about this this last night, and Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, a famous early 15th century book of hours featuring beautiful illustrations, came to mind. The illuminations in this book have become famous not only for their high artistic quality, but also because they portray servants and peasants of the duke doing typical activities for each month. The city of Paris plays a role in this manuscript, since two of the months feature views of its medieval monuments, like the Louvre when it was a castle (it was demolished and rebuilt as a palace in a modernization project by Franços I in the mid-to-late 1500’s - castles are sooo 15th century….).
How strange that just as illustrators like the Limbourg Brothers could find activities typical of each month, seven hundred years later, I, too, find my Parisian months easy to define.
In January, everyone heads back to work after taking time off for the holidays. But not too easily; some are already planning vacations for the end of the month or February. Galettes are available everywhere, which makes me very happy. And the winter sales (Les Soldes) are in full swing. Many Parisian fashionistas get their clothes and shoes during this time, since ordinarily these items would be way too expensive.
In February, Galettes are still abundant. Advertisements in the Metro focus on tropical vacations, luring people with five to six paid weeks off to come spend a little of that time in the warm weather. Parisians’ thoughts also turn to ski trips, especially when the kids are off for the two week school break.
March is usually kind of tough. The length of the busy winter months catches up with you, and there are no Galettes for consolation. It’s hard to say what the weather will be like from day to day. Every shaft of sunlight or warm breeze feels like hope. People begin thinking of spring vacations.
In April, the trees and flowers on the boulevards and in the parks begin to bloom. The weather is mild, sometimes still a little chilly, but there’s more sun. It truly is the most beautiful month to be in Paris. But there’s something most people don’t know: While we romanticize Paris in the springtime, inhabitants of the city are busy sneezing and rubbing their eyes, even as they admire the view; pollen is everywhere, and we get the good -- lovely cityscapes --, as well as the bad -- allergies galore. The coming of Easter is heralded by chocolates in very interesting shapes - mainly variations on chickens and bells (the French "Easter Bunny" is a bell that flies from Rome and scatters candy over the land - wtf).
May is still spring, but thoughts have already turned to summer. The weather is warmer, the trees’ blossoms have fallen away and left green leaves behind. Television takes on a lighter tone, with the Eurovision singing contest (a delightfully unintentionally cheese-filled event where EU countries’ appointed musical acts try to garner votes from other countries, to be named champion.) and the glamorous Cannes Film Festival. This latter is not only our way to see big international stars gathered on French turf; it also seems to be an excuse for just about every well-known journalist to head down to the Cote d’Azure to enjoy sea, sun, and schmoozing – hey, it’s their job! There are several holidays in May, and people use those to build long weekends or simply long weeks. Everything slows down, as if the whole world is sitting at a café terrace, sipping a cool drink. The collective heat in apartment buildings is turned off. Seasonal ice cream shops reopen. The days become longer – Parisian longer. Nowhere in this part of the world have I heard about such long days; it doesn’t get dark here until 9pm, and that will continue to be pushed back until August, when twilight gets here between 10 and 10:30!
In June, the city takes a collective breath and buckles down to get work done, because July and August – well, come on, that’s summer! Still, June does have its more relaxed moments: two holidays, blockbuster movies in theaters, and the Fête de la Musique (Music Day, where anyone can perform music in the streets, and people go out and stroll around appreciating (or wryly critiquing! We are Parisians, after all!) the melodies).
By early July, schools are out, and a significant portion of the population of all ages has left Paris for their summer vacations. The Metro is a bit emptier, the streets calmer. It’s a nice break for everyone. There just two crowded places: tourist attractions and shops (this is the month of the summer sales (Les Soldes)). The only hard thing about Paris in July is that most apartments (including my own) aren’t air conditioned. Electric fans come out, and many of us go to strange lengths to keep the heat away: shutters are permanently closed, rooms kept in darkness. Stores quickly run out of cool mozzarella cheese and ice cream. Parisians don’t celebrate Bastille Day – which they don’t call Bastille Day, but just “July 14th”-- with the same fervor as we Americans do the 4th of July – but there are fireworks, beautiful ones just behind the Eiffel Tower. The only problem is the crowds. Last year, I viewed the entire spectacle from just in front of the Ecole Militaire, on tip-toes, sandwiched between fellow onlookers and a bike someone had ill-advisedly brought along. In the countryside, villages begin having their “Fête du Village”, Village Celebration, with small parades set up by locals, and sometimes some pretty impressive fireworks.
August is traditionally vacation month in France. A few decades ago, most of the country just shut down during this time. Besides the tourists, Paris was a ghost town. But the global economy has forced the French into working – at least at half-capacity. Still, there is some consolation for those who go to work; as my boyfriend says when asked why he never takes off in August, “My boss and most of my co-workers are away, so going to work now is like vacation.” Like many others, he wiles away the hours mostly alone in an air-conditioned building doing the minimum amount of work necessary and spending the rest of the time online. At home, we continue to live in the heat. August is about the time where I’ve started to take it for granted that I’ll need to take a cold shower at least three times a day – and not for the fun reason people mostly talk about when they mention cold showers. Luckily, September and cooler weather are on the horizon. But on the other hand….
October is often a nasty month, weather-wise. While September was a mild transition into cooler temperatures and shorter days, now the wind becomes bitingly cold and merciless. The days are noticeably shorter, and the air is grey. Year-round it’s always somewhat rainy in Paris – that’s what makes the city smell so clean (without the rain, it would probably have a tinge of dog poop, since Parisians normally just leave that on the sidewalk, and the special motorized cars adapted to clean it can’t get through the whole city in a single day). But the October rain feels glacial. I start to wear gloves. There are no major holidays now, and there won’t be next month, either. There is the FIAC (International Contemporary Art Festival), which puts a bit of fun weirdness into an otherwise monotonous month. Some Parisians think now is the time to start making plans for a little getaway…but many decide to hold on till the big holidays in December. I’m happy I insist we celebrate Halloween.
November – Continued cold and dreariness, but at least the month starts with La Toussaint (All Saints Day), a national holiday. Time off – and a possible long weekend somewhere sunnier for some. Holiday shopping also starts becoming a distraction – though if this is a good or bad thing, depends on who you are.
December – The grands magasins (department stores) put on their famous window displays, avenues are decorated with tastefully exuberant holiday lights, and there’s a big tree in front of Notre Dame. The church’s manger is disappointingly minimalist for me – I always go in there expecting something as magnificent as New York’s Metropolitan Museum’s. But the minimalism is probably a good thing, focusing on what’s important. Still, most people don’t seem to think very much about the spiritual – instead, their thoughts are on the upcoming holiday break – and regardless of what they celebrate, food. Visions of oysters, champagne, and foie gras dance in their heads. Boxes of chocolate are on sale everywhere – this is a standard gift to give to co-workers, teachers, neighbors and friends. Sometimes I truly think I’m French. It only snows a few times a year in Paris – if that – but this often happens at least once or twice in December. The contrast of white snow and grey rooftops is a rare pleasure for the eye. At the same time, good luck taking it in; since Parisians don’t salt their sidewalks, you’ll probably spend a lot of this month slipping on sheets of ice and biting your lip as elderly people fall beside you. Hanukkah celebrations take place in Jewish neighborhoods – but always quietly; it’s not as important a holiday here as it is in the US, and due to some bad stuff in the past that we won’t go into right now, the French Jewish community is pretty discreet, which makes me a bit sad, pizza-bagel that I am. Most people who celebrate Christmas go home – “home” often being the countryside – where they eat traditional French meals fait maison and rest and watch movies on television. But not Christmas movies – the French don’t seem to like those, though my boyfriend has fallen in love with A Christmas Carol because he relates to Ebenezer Scrooge (seriously). The movies we watch here are recent family releases – the “Harry Potter” ones are usually shown on a set weeknight leading up to the holiday. In the spirit of equality, one of the founding principals of the French republic (of which we’re currently in the 5th incarnation; the French are perpetually unsatisfied), New Year’s is THE big holiday, since people of all beliefs can celebrate it. It’s not a family holiday, though, so normally we head to parties with friends. At the stroke of midnight, you know all networks will be overloaded and your “Bonne Année!” text messages will be blocked for hours, but you send them anyway. The next morning it will be January, and you’ll start the year with late text messages friends and family sent you.
And so, there’s my Parisian year.
If my mention of Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry left you hoping for castles, I apologize – but then again, now that I think of it, I can include a castle: when I go to certain places in the east of Paris, I can see the Château de Vincennes, a castle just outside the city.