Earlier this week, I’d seen the sign in the Super U window that the market would be closed May 1, but forgotten about it until this morning when I realized I was out of bread. No big deal really, but I started wondering what exactly French people did with their May day holiday.
Google, which fortunately never takes a holiday, reminded me that May Day, also known as La Fête du Travail, or Workers’ Day, is an occasion for protests, parades and demonstrations in Paris and other large cities; in fact, all over Europe. Anti-austerity seems to be this year’s theme.
On a brighter note, May 1 is also La Fête du Muguet, a tradition that started back in the 1500’s when King Charles gave posies of muguet, also known as lily-of-the-valley, to the ladies in his court. Evidently it caught on because, according to my Google source, it has been the tradition ever since to give muguet on May 1.
(It must be true, because the French Google search engine today is decorated with a tiny bunch of muguet.)
La Fete due Muguet is the only day in the year when vendors can sell flowers without a permit to do so. In the countryside, as a result, entire families descend upon the woods to pick and haul away baskets full of lily-of-the-valley. Vendors shout out their wares from street corners, I read, and village shopkeepers from the butcher to the baker, if not the candlestick maker, hand out sprigs of muguet to customers.
It all sounded charming, I could hardly wait to check out La Fete du Muguet in Excideuil. Although it poured all day yesterday, today the sun was shining and I decided to walk into town along the railroad path to observe first-hand the families hauling away their loads of muguet.
Save for an old man walking his dog, I had the woods to myself. I didn’t see any muguet either–plenty of buttercups, daisies, tiny purple violet like flowers, but no muguet. Perhaps it had all been hauled away.
If so, it wasn’t being sold on the sidewalks of Excideuil. One car drove slowly along the main street. The only person I passed was a man with a camera slung around his neck, possibly on a similar search. Although it said in La Monde (which was printed April 30 and dated May 2) that no-one in France works on May 1, the boulanger was open so I decided to pick up a baguette and, peut etre, my complimentary sprig of muguet. “Non, Madame.” The woman behind the counter shook her head. I took it to mean she was out of baguettes. I didn’t ask about the muguet.
Across the road, through the window of the butcher’s shop, I could see people waiting in line. It seemed unlikely that they were waiting for flowers. I walked on. The florist had baskets of purple petunias and red and pink geraniums out on the sidewalk, some nice looking house plants. If my French were even mildly proficient, I would have stopped to ask about muguets, instead I walked on.
Thirty minutes later, I was still walking. Up and down Exideuil’s steep, but practically deserted, streets. Not a sign of muguet. I was a bit disappointed. The whole thing, I decided, had probably faded into the mists of quaint but no longer observed customs. Sort of like Maypole dancing, does anyone do that anymore?
And then I rounded the corner to see if the little market opposite cafe Rustique might be open so that I could buy a baguette and I almost laughed out loud. Sitting at the outdoor tables of the Rustique was a tatooed and pierced group of 20-somethings selling tiny bunches of muguet.
One of them sprang away from his group when he saw me and, laughing, dropped to his knees, begging me to buy. I asked instead to take his picture. One of his friends joined him and they both chattered away at me, trying to explain, I think, the significance of the flowers. And then, outside the little market, another sign. Muguet 3 bains, 2.50.
I didn’t buy any of those either, I think they were silk, but I walked away smiling.
Update: May 13 I asked Luisa about the bunch of muguet on her table. They grow like mad in her flower garden, she said. She’s never seen them in the woods though. She picked a bunch for me which are now on my coffee table. I smelled their scent before I actually saw them. Beautiful.
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