Home-making

The holidays are almost over. There’s one very funny thing with teaching: how much it exhausts you greatly varies with the seasons. While it can be physically and emotionally shattering in winter, it’s much easier to teach in the spring, when students, colleagues and yourself are in a better mood and you don’t have to rise too long before the sun. I don’t know how many jobs remain so strongly tied to seasonal rhythms. It certainly didn’t feel the same doing research in Québec, even if the seasonal changes were far more dramatic than they are here.

Now spring has come back, it was time for us to do a few small jobs we had left aside. Learning how to use lime and whitewash rooms was much more interesting than it sounds. It’s messy, time-consuming and particularly fickle depending on the materials you’re trying to paint, and I really understand why people invented ready-made acrylic paints for that sort of job, but I still like knowing that I can now paint my home any colour I like without depending on whatever mysterious chemicals paint-makers will choose to mix in their wares, and for a quarter of the price. Plus, the ochre we used came from fifty kilometres away, and it looks gorgeous. It was well worth the hours spent mixing lime and plaster and scrubbing white stains off the floor. All right, maybe we could have done it all just as well without forgetting that we had bought plastic covers for the floor (I’m not certain what I was thinking, splashing paint all over and thinking it would be easy to clean afterwards), but it was very satisfying nonetheless.

Shopping around to find potted plants for the balcony, I noticed one particular thing. Gardens today are not gardens anymore. They’re outdoors dining rooms with a splatter of living-room if you have enough space. Taking care of your garden, terrace or balcony seems to imply that you’ll cram as many tables and chairs as you can in there, plus a barbecue and a pizza oven if you have enough space, and don’t forget the swimming-pool. It’s nothing new, I know. But when you pause to think about it, it raises questions that are not all that comfortable. Having a garden in South-East France today is an incredible luxury, given how over-populated the area is. You’d think possessing a little bit of nature, or an outdoor space wide enough to recreate it, would be precious. Instead, the only value of a garden seems to be the extra space, that you can colonise little by little to make it as similar to an indoor space as you can, only with a little more sun and fresh air. Is that the best we can do? People pour concrete or gravel over the ground to have a stable surface on which to place their lounging chairs, they dig hole and line them with ceramic to swim in chlorinated water a few days a year, and what’s really unique to nature, the smell of grass and the shade of trees, they relegate in narrow borders bounded by more concrete, to make sure nothing will grow outside the meagre designated area. Is that really the best we can wish for? Is that all the luxury nature can afford us: to be beaten back even outside, so we can get the sun but none of those pesky living things?

Every year in South-East France, we get torrential rains, and at least a couple of people (sometimes a couple dozens) die in the subsequent floods. It is common knowledge now that these are not natural catastrophes. The contemporary tendency to plaster concrete or asphalt over open ground is largely responsible: there is nowhere left where water can seep into the ground. The heat in summer gets close to unbearable, because instead of being absorbed by plants and subdued by evaporating water from the leaves, it is reflected by the stone tiles that make up most of today’s gardens, and there is no shade anymore to counter it. What a luxury indeed, to choke in the heat and, for the unlucky, to drown in water that couldn’t find any earth to peacefully sink in.

Some of my neighbours want to turn the greenery below our building into extra parking spaces. The sixties don’t want to die, it seems. I hope the twenty-first century will eventually wake up and fight back. Living, growing things are our only way out.

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