1st May, 4.00 p.m. The washing machine’s just finished washing strappy tops and shorts, but I’m sitting here in front of a cosy log fire watching the rain scything it down in true British style. This time 2 days ago it was 37 in the shade, today it’s 11. What’s gone wrong?
As in England, I suppose the reason is that it’s a national holiday, and few people are at work. In fact it’s THE national holiday, la Fête du Travail. Only a few neighbourhood shops are open, and then only in the morning: no supermarkets, garages, big stores – no newspapers today either. But that doesn’t mean there’s no commercial activity. Oh no! Today’s the day when everyone offers one another a traditional token of friendship and esteem – a sprig or two of lily of the valley, prettily presented. In every village, every town, you’ll find people on street corners, outside the bakers’, at the cross roads, selling the flowers that they probably spent yesterday gathering and tying into pretty posies. Here in Laroque we had groups of children as entrepreneurs. A friend of mine went to Mirepoix to set out her stall, and she’s made 70 euros. It’s the one day of the year when anyone who wants to can sell on the streets without a licence – so long as they’re selling only lilies of the valley (muguets).
I must have asked a dozen people the origin of this tradition. Nobody knows. ‘It’s simply to offer bonheur’, they shrugged. But Léonce had a couple of stories to tell. We all know that lilies of the valley have a strong and lovely perfume. The nightingale smells them as they come into flower on the first of May, and this gives him the energy he needs to get into the woods and begin courting, nest building, and singing. And those bell shaped flowers? Well, they apparently surround the Heavenly Gates, where they come in handy by tinkling musically to announce the arrival of another soul from earth.