Invasions, Evasion, and the Tapette à Mouche
France, like many European countries, has endured centuries of invasions from the Romans, Gauls, or neighboring clans to the Italians, Germans and the Brits. You can see evidence of this anywhere you go in the form of fortified castles, walled citadels, and enclosed monasteries. France (and the French) have repeatedly tried to keep out whatever was trying to get in.
Our tour throughout France has been a varied one. We have stayed in large cities and very small villages (where the population of our most recent stay is 476). Everywhere we have stayed, we have encountered stone houses that are clustered very close to each other. Many times a one-lane road is the only thing that separates one building from another with no sidewalk or front patio or porch. This has puzzled us to no end. Even in places that are surrounded by large tracts of land, the village houses are clustered tightly together. Another puzzling aspect of life in France is the fact that in most of the older sections of a city or village, the houses seem to have no front façade. Instead, you encounter building after building that seem to have no front to them at all. It is as if you were looking at the back of a building facing the street. Everywhere you look, there are no trees, vegetation, or greenery of any kind. Just stone or brick.
Another puzzle is that just about every single stone house you see has heavy wood shutters on the exterior of the building. The shutters are not only on the windows but can be on the front door as well. And while the windows and doors may have glass windows that swing in or out, everywhere we look, the heavy wood shutters are tightly closed, or at the most, just slightly open. In every place we have stayed that has had shutters, we have been the only ones to open the shutters (and windows) completely. We love to have light come into the living area and when not enough light would come in because the windows were too small or because the building was facing north, we missed the light. Oh, yes, by the way, every evening, way before the sun is even thinking of setting, everyone (except for us, of course) has shuttered themselves tightly into their homes.
So what gives? Why are buildings so tightly packed together even when there is a lot of space all around? And why are there no sidewalks to walk on, or shutters that are mostly closed, and buildings that seem to turn their backs to you? And where are the trees, flowers, and grass?
Perhaps centuries of invasions by one group or another have led to towns and villages that are tightly packed so that it would be easier to defend than one where there was a lot of room between buildings. After all, many of the towns and villages we have been to are centuries old. As for the narrow streets and no sidewalks? Most stone buildings were built centuries before the invention of the car, so any street or alley was meant for pedestrians or ox and cart.
As for the shutters, according to authors Jean-Benoit Nadeau & Julie Barlow (Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong: Why We Love France but not the French), shutters first started appearing over four hundred years ago after the ruling class (noblemen, barons etc.) started taxing common people according to how much perceived wealth one had. This “estimate” of one’s wealth was determined by looking into people’s homes through their windows. So the idea to shutter the windows away from the prying eyes of the tax man was born.
There seem to be certain things that remain in the French mentality. Shutters come to mind. And why no trees, grass or flowers? The French, like the Spaniards, build their homes so that the outside living area (i.e., the yard), is enclosed as a courtyard within the confines of the building. This makes their homes very private places where they can have as simple or elegant a courtyard as they wish.
One last note, I surmise that one of the reasons the French keep all of their windows closed even when their shutters are open is because, since there are no screens on the windows (which would make it next to impossible to close the shutters), keeping the windows closed keeps out any unwanted flying bugs like flies and mosquitoes. Since we love the fresh air and sunlight, we have had a few of the offending bugs enter, uninvited of course. So what is the solution? Mr. BigFoot! It seems that the French deal with flies and mosquitos by not letting them into the house in the first place….hence, they close (and keep closed) all the windows. Since we are just the opposite, I have had to look for (and let me tell you, it took a lot of looking) a fly swatter! Very rare to find one it seems. What I did manage to buy (I suspect only because it is summertime), is a very thin, flimsy foot-shaped plastic swatter… “Mr. BigFoot” I call it or, as the French would say, a tapette à mouche.