They’ve started early this year. Sensing some canine activity downstairs while I was up working at my desk, I looked out of the window. Sure enough a car had pulled up – an event in itself, here in the heart of the heart of the country. Then, zut alors, two big strong uniformed men got out of the car. My heart sank. Gendarmes! You can’t pretend that you’re not at home with the gendarmes, just in case something dire has happened or you’ve committed some crime of which you’re not yet aware.
Then, as I opened the front door and let our ferocious dog out to greet the strangers, I realised the error of my ways. It was a pair of sapeurs-pompiers in dark blue military-style uniform. It was a case of both phew! and uh-oh! A pair of pompiers can mean only one thing: calendars. Let the season commence.
|Thanks, but no thanks.|
Logically enough, we first encountered calendar time during the lead-up to our first Christmas in France, way back in the last century. I think it was our factrice who presented us with our first calendar. Being naïve newcomers from the Big (British) City, we thanked her very much for her kind gift and sent her on her way. It was only after further visits – from the pompiers, the bin men, the League of Catholic Gentlemen, the Belotte Association of the Corrèze and the like – that we twigged. Dineros. Money money money.
That’s the trouble with calendar time. Like everything else in France, demands for money come in clusters. The calendar season comes at the tail end of the most financially exhausting time of year, when one avis de stealth tax follows another, and just before all the insurance demands kick you when you’re down. So you’re not feeling as generous as you might otherwise be. And, frankly, just how many calendars does a household need?
At first we acted by playing dead whenever there was a knock at the door around the end of November/beginning of December. Me under the kitchen table, perhaps, while Debs would swaddle the infant daughter close to her maternal bosom somewhere behind the sofa, lest she let out a tell-tale ‘da!’ or some such childish sound to give the game away. Once we heard footsteps descending the steps, then we could breathe again.
However, as we gathered more knowledge of the French system, we learned not to be quite so blanket in our dismissal of people bearing calendars. We learned to prioritise. For example, neither of us had realised that firemen and women in France are mainly volunteers. Soon after moving into our new home, we had a chimney fire, which was scary in the extreme. Even though the local chapter of sapeurs-pompiers got lost on the way here and arrived 25 minutes after I’d called the emergency number, I witnessed what a great job they do. So, if they come a-visiting when either of us is in, we pay far too much for a fairly tawdry collection of photographs of the squadron in uniform.
We also learned that facteurs and factrices retire on a nice fat index-linked pension from La Poste after not too many years of driving around in their yellow vans à la Postman Patrice, putting tax demands in people’s green metal letter boxes. In comparison to coal mining, chicken-packing, sweat-shop labour and the like, some might call it a cushy number. So this has determined what we give our post(wo)man for their correspondingly measly calendar. Just enough to encourage him or her to keep popping our tax demands into our letterbox rather than dumping them down a ravine. Some might protest, of course, that this sounds like a great option. I say unto them that the authorities don’t let non-receipt prevent them from charging their 10% surcharge for late payments.
As for the other hawkers of calendars who knock on our door at this time of year, we have learned to say – politely – ‘sur votre vélo’. It’s difficult, because one knock on the door sounds like any other. So if I find someone like Hervé from the local chapter of the League of Catholic Gentlemen on my doorstep, I’ve found that sending him nicely on his way without buying his ‘calendrical’ wares is good practice for dealing with incessant telesales calls.
The irony is that the most useful calendars here come free – in the form of the wall planners that you can pick up (if you’re in the right place at the right time) from La Poste or your friendly local insurance office. The irony is compounded by the fact that every year, as a Christmas present, my sister sends us a calendar for our kitchen wall. 2011 has been the year of Audrey Hepburn and 2010 was Gustav Klimt. Beyond that, my memory starts to fail me. But I don’t remember a single year when we’ve actually used one of the calendars for which we’ve paid through the nose. They hang around for a couple of months after Christmas until we’re fed up with photographs of men and women in uniform – before finding their way into the recycle bin.
Still, in the case of the pompiers at least, it’s money in a good cause.