It starts earlier in the month than you would think … once the page turns to October, the French begin to consider coming home to pay annual respect at the family cemetery for All Souls or All Saints Day.
For us as Americans, Halloween.
My first experience of it was after two rugged weeks of Work.
I had planned to close the arduous with the sublime, and I booked a room at the Trianon Palace, which of course backs up to the gardens of Versailles, summer chateau of Marie Antoinette.
I was there for a few days prior to the 31st, and then, that day, had a taxi take me into Paris.
La périphérie, going into to the city was empty. It was hard to miss, mainly because of the contrast — the opposite direction, leading OUT, was in a painful standstill, five rows across, snaking along patiently …
I asked my driver WHAT was going on?
I’d not ever seen la périphérie EMPTY!
And where were THEY all going?
The soft, smug, proud smile … Ah, Madame, it is TOUSSAINT.
Everyone leaves the city today, to be with their family for the weekend.
I had no French. The word Toussaint was completely foreign to me, but I did the math.
People were going home to visit the graves of their ancestors, to eat at the table together, to be family.
By the THOUSANDS.
Here in our 250 year old village townhouse on the Normandy/Brittany border, we are directly across from the village church.
Yes; that does mean church bells — and it also means le cimetière.
It has been such the bird’s eye view into an area of life I had not ever experienced.
It’s actually pretty difficult to immerse yourself in a foreign culture, and not see their traditions.
Unless you want that.
To take it in, to watch the gentility of the tradition emerge day after day …
The stonemason who is in the hardware store standing in line at the END of his day, at this the END of the month, the LAST DAY POSSIBLE to get the crysanthymums for the family grave — does he show up?
The family who are waiting in the village of their generations-deep family for their relatives to come home?
Are they ready?
The elder gentleman wearing his beret, cane to the side as he ponders, bends and scrubs the stone of his life … the widow, in her house frock, not anyone you’d want to get on the wrong side of, digs into the nooks and crannies … the grown children of, now married and subdivided, all come in suit jackets or work jumpers with scrub brushes, buckets and rags every year to make sure the family’s name is polished bright and laden with the loving memory flowers impart.
The cimetière turns into a park of every color where old friends meet and catch up, where children are always brought along to instill the tradition year after year after year, and where together, they reflect and pray.
Then there is the all-consuming advance of the west …
In years past, there were no children here in our village.
No commerce, no schools, is not enticing for family life.
But people more and more are commuting farther and farther, to work, and then be able to come home to the gifts of country living.
We now have three children here in one family in particular, who have befriended me. They know I am an American. They come around on their bikes a few times a week and always insist on practicing their English with me — so we do play!
Toc, toc, toc … last year I was caught unawares, and was mortified!
There they were, all dressed up in costume…and there I was, in culture shock.
This year I was ready … toc, toc, toc … I opened the door, and voila.
They really didn’t quite know what to do.
I will have to teach them the phrase ‘trick or treat’.
Imagine, knocking on someone’s door, it opens, and candy goes into your sac.
Their noses led their heads into the sac, behind the drop, amazed that they had scored.
That HAS to be revelatory.
All they know, is to say ‘merci’.
But they are getting the hang of it quickly.
Given there are only 3 kids here in our tiny village, we had a pretty high turnout…..