Amuse-Bouche: A la recherche du beau temps…

In one irréductible (defiant) corner of the southeast, a sole soleil sparkles. 

Il pleut sur Nantes,” sings Barbara. It’s also raining on Paris, Strasbourg and Toulouse. Today’s carte météorologique (weather map) shows toute la Gaule (all Gaul, the Roman name for France) dotted with dripping rain. Toute ? Non ! In one irréductible (defiant) corner of the southeast, a sole soleil sparkles. Ah, Nice. The city has what the French love to call a microclimat. Elsewhere, il fait un temps à ne pas mettre un chien dehors – it’s weather you wouldn’t put a dog out in – but here it’s almost la canicule (dog days). Le temps est au beau fixe (the barometer says fine weather) most days of the year.

Actually it rains as much in Nice as it does elsewhere in France, only it all falls at once. In winter, it can turn into a déluge. Nevertheless in the 1840s, stylish Brits declared Nice a nice place to spend le carnaval, and ever since, a substantial number of British residents walk their dogs on la Promenade des Anglais. At first this was risky. The traditional bataille des fleurs (battle of flowers, a parade of flower-bedecked floats) on Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday) included tossing kilos of plaster confettis simulating the sugarcoated almonds Italians call confetti. People had to don long overcoats and wire masks to avoid injury. Fortunately, in 1892, plaster was outlawed and replaced by the colorful bits of paper we know today.

Carnival, whose Latin etymology is carnem levāre, “to put away meat” (or possibly carne vale, “farewell to meat”), is a strangely flexible festivity. Places that really like to party open the pre-Lenten celebration as early as November. Classically, it starts on l’Épiphanie, known as le Jour des Rois, the day the three kings arrived in Bethlehem. That’s when you look for la fève, a lucky “bean”, in une galette des Rois (a traditional pastry whence originated New Orleans’ Mardi Gras “King Cake,” with its gaudy purple, green and gold icing). These days, the “bean” is usually a small figurine or fanciful trinket.

In many countries Epiphany is celebrated on January 6 (Twelfth Night). In Belgium and France, it’s the second Sunday after Christmas. But whenever it begins, the carnival period usually ends with Mercredi des Cendres (Ash Wednesday), the beginning of Carême (Lent). In Nice, however, Carnaval is greatly prolonged, probably to promote tourism during the off-season.  This year the holiday begins on February 18 and the Niçois keep tossing confetti and flowers until March 9.

By then le temps s’est écoulé (time has passed) and le temps est meilleur — the weather has improved. The word le temps, same spelling, pronunciation and etymology, can mean time, weather, or tense (present, past, future). Il y a temps et temps; i.e., it depends on the context. A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Marcel Proust’s novel exploring wasted, long gone and forgotten times, has caused translation problems for years. And since it’s seven volumes long, it takes plenty of time to read (but hardly du temps perdu).

Now, parlons de la pluie et du beau temps (let’s talk about rain and fine weather, i.e. let’s make casual conversation). English speakers say everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. The French would say an alpha dog (chef de meute) fait la pluie et le beau temps (rules the roost). Maybe that’s why animal imagery dominates French weather metaphors. When il fait un temps de chien (the weather’s horrible-see above) or un froid de canard (cold weather is for ducks?) it might pleuvoir comme vache qui pisse (just be glad that cows don’t fly).

But when it’s raining cats and dogs in English, the French abandon zoology: la pluie tombe à seaux (rain falls in buckets), il pleut des cordes (ropes) or even il tombe des hallebardes (halberds: a combined spear and battle-ax). If you forget your parapluie (umbrella), vous prenez une douche (you take a shower) and get trempé (soaked) jusqu’aux os (to the marrow) or, more rarely, comme une soupe. The original soupe was a slice of bread with bouillon poured over it.

Poet Paul Verlaine played with the liquid and sonorous similarity of pleuvoir (to rain) and pleurer (to weep) in “Il pleure dans mon coeur (heart) comme il pleut sur la ville.” Many metaphors go further, ascribing human feelings to weather. Le temps boude (sulks), il est détraqué (upset, nuts), maussade (sullen), barbouillé (queasy), tristounet (gloomy), incertain (hesitant) or capricieux. The wind soupire (sighs), siffle (whistles), se lamente (grieves) and se tait (shuts up).

Have you heard of the “pathetic fallacy”? In sunny Nice, when people feel sad and it happens to rain, they think the weather’s being sympathetic (il pleut parce que je pleure: it’s raining because I’m crying). Non ! It’s vice versa. (I’m crying because it’s raining.) Luckily on the Promenade des Anglais you can buy a sympathetic pink parapluie. When you open it, everyone sees the words “Merde, il pleut.”