In the bleak midwinter

Lyon has a continental winter: that is to say that it is cold. I have stopped remarking on this in the presence of French people, however, because I am bored of finding good-humoured ripostes to the suggestion that, being British, I should be used to freezing temperatures. OK, so the Lyonnais winter is sub-hyperborean, but when it comes to bone-chill it beats London hands-down. Since moving here we might as well have taken out shares in knitwear and doudounes.

Last week saw an afternoon of particularly glacial conditions during which I had the misfortune to need to spend more than five minutes standing outside. Under ordinary circumstances I might have done a few burpees just to stay alive, but the presence of witnesses rendered this inadvisable, so I took up desperate shivering instead.

I had with me the Reader, who was on her way to a dance class. As well as her leotard and tights, we had swaddled her in velour tracksuit bottoms, thick socks, two long sleeved-tops, a high-necked fleece jumper, a thick winter coat, woolly hat, and gloves. Despite looking like a Michelin man, her lips quickly turned blue and her normal pallor increased to the extent that she was almost transparent.

Oh la la, elle a froid, everyone said (for some reason my offspring, despite also being British, are immune to jibes about their constitutional resilience to the cold). Despite exuding all the warmth of an ice-pack, I gave the Reader a hug to demonstrate that her predicament bothered me, too. Then (bingo!) all at once came the two remarks that I should have been expecting from the outset: c’est son cou ! Mais elle ne porte pas d’écharpe ! Oh la la: elle va attraper la grippe !

I shall examine the second statement first. All French people seem to be taught in school that disease springs from changes in temperature. If a French person is cold they will immediately catch a cold. I may be no scientist, but for me it has been fairly convincingly demonstrated that the common cold is caused by a virus, not by air temperature. The good old NHS tells me that becoming cold can increase the likelihood that a virus you are already carrying may become active, but that without the presence of the virus in the first place, nothing will happen.

France may be a nation that prides itself on its scientific rigour, but I have learnt that no amount of pesky evidence will dispel this causal association between ambient temperature and illness. I therefore continue to endure accounts of how someone has travelled between sunny climes and the frozen wastes of the north, the changements de temperature resulting in some terrible maladie. I have also schooled myself in not challenging the idea that the common rhume is the same as the grippe. We may not get the ‘flu in the UK very much, but in France, a runny nose equals the grippe. Point.

Back to the poor Reader, before her limbs become numb with cold. The idea that an exposed neck is particularly dangerous is equally unfounded. Yes, it has often been claimed that we lose most of our body heat through our heads (and, yes, our heads are balanced on our necks), but research published in the British Medical Journal has shown these claims to be false. We may be more sensitive to changes in temperature in our head, face and chest (and by extension, I suppose, neck) than we are in other parts of our body, but these areas lose heat no more quickly than anywhere else.

The French concern with keeping the cou warm at all costs has led to what can only be described as a national obsession with scarf-wearing. From the moment that the thermometer drops below about 20ºC, only the clinically insane would leave the house without a trusty écharpe (it’s acceptable to start the season with chiffon, so long as you progress to wool or fleece at below 10 ºC). Allowing one’s child to step outside without one is almost criminal. (Why do I feel the need to remind you here that the Reader’s neck was not exposed, but was in fact covered by her roll-neck fleece jumper?)

The Reader and her sister in winter scarves, with their aunt, who is lucky to be alive without one

I can only presume that it is from this worship of the magical properties of the écharpe that the French man’s love affair with the man-scarf springs. Take a stroll around any French office and you will see but a tiny smattering of ties. Scarves, on the other hand, you will see aplenty. And whereas in a British workplace a silk or chiffon scarf might be considered to be mildly effete, in France such an item is de rigeur. Indeed, you might be mistaken for thinking that they formed part of the uniform of the workplace.

As part of my regular audit of how French our family may have become, I note that Eadred the Bald has embraced this sartorial choice wholeheartedly. It is relatively difficult to convince him to put on his underpants before donning his man-scarf in the morning, and panic sets in if he can’t find his accessory as he is leaving the house. I even have great difficulty persuading him to take it off before he splatters tomato soup down it at lunchtime.

Eadred boldly exports the man-scarf to an English pub

Mind you. Eadred is ill far less often than the rest of us. Perhaps there is something in this scarf-wearing, after all…



9 thoughts on “In the bleak midwinter

  1. Oh dear, I am crying with laughter after reading this post 🙂 and shivering in fear as we are going to Lyon this week!!! Having arrived in France from Australia we have realised we are woefully underprepared for the Winter!!! We are off to the sales today to stock up on boots and woollies!!! We are in Aude and have managed OK so far but it seems that Lyon is much colder!!!!

    1. Oh dear! I don’t wish to alarm you but temperatures are predicted to drop as low as -15 next week, so yes, you had better stock up. Thank you for dropping by!

  2. Hilarious. My husband also warns sternly against “courants d’air”–drafts to him but breezes to me, especially in summer. I will have the windows open and he’ll give them an evil look, slam his hands over his ears and screech “il y a un courant d’air!!!”
    I have noticed the de rigueur silhouette for both sexes is a big like a Goya portrait, with a big, BIG scarf wound around the neck. Coat optional.
    It IS chilly in Carcassonne lately, but with lows of -2 C, it’s nothing compared with where we lived before: NYC.

    1. Yes! The courant d’air… though they also love them with their obsession with air circulation systems in their houses. Thank you for stopping by!

  3. I would have definitely dropped down and started doing burpees. No shame. When it’s cold, you have to keep warm. I’ll do walking lunges in the park and my husband gets so embarrassed. Speaking of my husband, 0 C is absolute hell for him and he starts the car 15 minutes before he leaves the house on “cold” mornings. No idea how I convinced him to visit Montreal with me about 5 years ago! Now THAT was cold. Wishing you a happy New Year and a warm winter. 😉

    1. Now there is the difference between an American and a British citizen… no, joking aside, he can’t run the car for 15 whole minutes? No?!?! Sending warm thoughts.

  4. We lived in Lyon proper for 6 years, followed by another 10 in the Monts du Lyonnais. During that time I learned two things: 1) never argue with the French about ‘catching cold’ (like you I was raised with scientific teachings about viruses but in France, even doctors believe in the ‘coup de froid’), and 2) always wear a scarf. Not sure why the latter lesson took, but after suffering the particular bone-chilling cold of Lyon, my ‘cou’ requires covering at the least sign of cold. Hope you and the Reader stay warm during this ‘froid de canard’!

    1. Thank you! You’re quite right: I would never dream of going out in the cold without a scarf, though this is not through fear of chilling my neck, just that I get cold. French people make me wish that I didn’t like a scarf quite so much though…

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