The sun is shining once again in Lyon, and as a result the view out of my window looks much more like the view I would expect from a house in France than it has done all winter.
Since I am British, it should not surprise anyone that I have chosen to open this post with a meteorological observation. Discussing our dismal weather is, after all, a national pastime, and with good reason. Awkward silence? Mention the rain and even the most taciturn of interlocutors will become positively garrulous on the subject of the wet footprints that their plumber trod up their stairs the day before. Not sure about someone’s moral character? Mention the stifling temperature and, depending on whether they name check climate change or Piz Buin, you will have all the answers you need. In the UK, countless deep friendships are initiated with one seemingly banal remark about the colour of the clouds (grey, usually).
In this context, you will be able to imagine my sense of relief when, after about four months here, I began to notice that French people also sometimes used the weather as a conversational gambit. Of course, there were some differences. For example, I observed that, unlike their British equivalents, such discussions tended to have a sartorial element. Admittedly, this latter was frequently used to highlight my own wardrobe deficiencies (“mais Emily, with your beaux yeux bleus, you really should wear your lunettes de soleil” or “oh la, in the cold weather your girls will get very ill unless they wear une petite écharpe”) but nonetheless I felt that I had finally identified a topic of conversation at which, given a lifetime of practice, I could excel whatever the language. My social worries were over. Armed with my discovery, it would not be long before I had filled my address book with firm new friends.
So it came to pass that, one sunny but chilly morning in mid-May, I strode confidently up to a group of mothers at the school gate and, instead of waiting for them to ask me a question and then demonstrating my impressive array of fish faces in response, I initiated a conversation by remarking that I had been surprised to spot frost on the ground at that time of year. Remembering the need to mention clothing, I dropped in, rather subtly I thought, the fact that I had not been able to leave the house without a jacket despite the bright sunshine. Instead of using my remark as a springboard for a rush of further grateful observations or grumbles, as would have happened in London, the mothers regarded me for a moment with some amusement. Finally, one of them broke the silence, explaining to me laboriously, as if to a small but particularly slow-witted child, “Mais oui, Emily, it is called les saints de glace”. The conversation moved on and eventually, deflated, I went home and looked up the ice saints on the internet. It transpired that there was always a frost in France on 11, 12 and 13 May, traditionally the saints’ days for St Mamert, St Pancrace and St Servais,* who, as a consequence, were collectively known as the ice saints. In other words, my remark had not been a moderately dull but thoroughly acceptable discussion opener, but merely a statement of the obvious, best forgotten.
Unfortunately, neither of my two subsequent meteorological comments met with any more success. In September, having endured three days of tantalisingly glorious sunshine periodically broken up by prolonged and savage gusts of wind, I ventured an observation on the subject of my hairstyle, which was comically failing to withstand the gale forces buffeting it about my face. At the very least I expected a laugh of recognition or pity in response, but instead got told, somewhat abruptly, that of course, it was the mistral, and there was nothing to be done about it. Only last week, having got caught in a hail shower just five minutes after I had left the house under clear skies, my cheerful remark about the extreme changeability of the weather was dismissed in seconds with the statement that yes, it was foolhardy to expect to go out in March without being prepared for the onset of a giboulée (a sudden downpour sandwiched between periods of sunshine).
It is only now, after repeated failed overtures, that I realise where I have been going wrong. In the UK, the weather is a valid topic of conversation because it is a never-ending source of (usually unpleasant) surprises. Plan an outdoor July wedding and you will need to have a detailed wet weather contingency plan because, even on the morning of the event, you cannot be sure whether it will be sunny or not. Book a flight for March and you may find yourself grounded because of unseasonal snow. Even train operators find themselves at the whim of the heavens, regularly having to delay and cancel services because of rain on the tracks or leaves on the line or frost on the cables.
In France, however, they have the weather nailed. They know on which mornings in May there will be frost; they predict the unpredictable showers in March; they know precisely when to tidy away their garden umbrella in advance of the mistral. The weather is known, quantifiable, predictable and precise. There is a vast array of technical vocabulary available for the permutations of every season. Every wind has its own name, every frost its patron saint. And, if you know it all already, what possible interest can there be in remarking upon the weather, even in desperation? When I have memorised the French meteorological calendar day-by-day and therefore know how to spot a weather-related phenomenon that is in any way unforseen, I will be able to dazzle French people with my British conversational skills. Until that point, I will pack an umbrella, a scarf and some sunglasses every day, just in case, and stick to my fish faces.
*In the modernised calendar of French saints, these have become Ste Estelle, Ste Achille and Ste Rolande