01 May 2008

The Season of Muguets and Colza

A muguet nosegay

Spring has taken its sweet time coming, this year, but at last the season has committed itself. My street is perfumed now with lilacs and wisteria from the neighbors’ gardens; my own garden in Beynes has seen the forsythia burgeon in brilliant yellow, then fade, then shake out its green leaves. The lawn was briefly carpeted with primevères and tiny violets, but we had to mow them down already, as the grass is growing fast. The lawn needs mowing again, as it happens, but the temperamental skies won’t permit that. It rains at least a little every day.

The flower du jour is the lily of the valley, or muguet. It is tradition in France, every May Day, to purchase a little bouquet of these beauties and to present it to one of the ladies of one’s acquaintance. If one is acquainted with more than two ladies, one can drop a wad of change at the florist’s shop, because muguets, though neglected 364 days of the year, run about 1.50 € a stem on May 1. The tiny, bell-shaped, exquisite blossoms are fragile, and one buys them in the certain knowledge that they will have wilted before May 2. I’m sure there’s a philosophical lesson to be drawn there. I just don’t know what it is.

Yet for me, the flower that announces May most reliably is not the muguet but the colza, which is cultivated in profusion all around the country. When in bloom, the colza turns whole fields a brilliant, Crayola yellow, in striking contrast with the deepening green of adjacent fields. When viewed in late afternoon (particularly when the sun emerges, golden and stabbing bright, from an otherwise steely sky), the most ordinary French countryside in May is almost unbearably beautiful, its great blocks of color like a painting Cézanne died too soon to paint.

We admire snow because of its ability to transform the familiar: suddenly, our humdrum surroundings are made smooth and clean and strange. The colzas do something similar, and yet the fields of France will be dull again in a few weeks — until the sunflowers begin to bloom. And what is the colza? In America, we call it canola. You know, the stuff cooking oil is made of. It’s beautiful and low in cholesterol.

In France, May Day is a national holiday, the equivalent of Labor Day in the United States. The French do more than merely celebrate their workers, however: they celebrate the fact that their workers aren’t American. The holiday originated as a display of solidarity with American labor leaders sentenced to death following the rioting that erupted during a demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket, in 1869. That’s right: Americans were the cause of May Day, with all its attendant labor demonstrations and holidays, around the world, not to mention its Soviet military parades, too. Who’d a thunk it?

Perhaps tellingly, the French version of Labor Day inaugurates a month that typically includes not one but four four-day weekends, seizing on any pretext. When the government suggested a few years ago that the Pentecost holiday might be dispensed with, a general strike ensued. (“We’ll show you — we won’t go to work, no matter what you say.”) It’s basically impossible to get anything done until June, when you have to hurry, hurry, hurry, because the entire universe goes on vacation in August.

We were denied a summer last year, and apart from a few tooth-clattering days in December, our winter proved characterless, too. Mostly, the seasons in France have flowed from one to another in a kind of chilled soup, grey and rainy, for as long as I can remember. I crave sunshine now. At least I can look at the canola in bloom — and look forward to Joyce DiDonato’s return to Paris. We must seek our sunshine where we can.