French Friday #31: Magical scarves and the evil breeze

The French are known for being particularly stylish and for seeming to achieve that without effort. As though it’s in their genes. It may be. (Apart from the goofy man-capris that young men seem to like.) One accessory a French person is almost never without is a scarf. Be it winter, spring, summer, or fall, there are scarves for all occasions and seasons. Aside from pulling an outfit together, did you know that French scarves also have magical properties? Oh yes, its true. Magical healing properties. You may look at your own humble scarf in a different light after this. But first, let’s take a look at the evil breeze.

The French people cannot abide a breeze, or courant d’air. It’s not fear of any pestilence that the wind might be carrying along, it’s the very air itself that incites such panic. Malevolent, moving air has the power to strike you down and surely render you a feeble, rheumy mess of a human being. Serious measures must be taken to ensure that the slightest puff of air does not penetrate any home or building. If you’ve ever traveled in France during the summer and wondered at the lack of air conditioning, even when the populace is visibly sweltering, now you know why. There are a few restaurants who, understanding that they cater to tourists, will install a small window unit in a far corner of their establishment and then turn it on at the very lowest setting (so as not to induce terror in the rest of their patrons). Even so, your French server will inevitably attempt to steer you away from the air conditioning, suggesting several other tables because surely no person in his right mind would want to sit by a machine that actually blows air directly on you! Quelle horreur!

Summer meal with friends. We were not allowed to sit by the window or AC.

Mr. Gren and I participated in a gospel choir through our church while living in France. It was a great draw for the community. The choir was 100+ strong and we had rehearsal in the small sanctuary of our church, formerly a carpenter’s workshop. When you pack a room that full of people, the air begins to get a little dense, even in winter. Once the temperature had risen to an uncomfortable height, a Brit or an American would quietly crack open a window in the back. Relief never lasted for long because as soon as the French choir members felt the slightest whiff of air, a cackling clamor arose as though we had just let a fox into the henhouse. It really was an interesting social experiment: Open the window and watch the French people climb over each other in order to shut it as quickly as possible. After that we would leave it closed because, well, “When in Rome…”

Our church, Emmanuel International in Rueil. Note the two offending windows between the cross.

Now, obviously, in a country with architecture as old as France has, not every building is airtight. Enter the magical scarf. The scarf will prevent any rogue currents from attacking your neck, which, in the French mindset, is the gateway to health or illness. Another interesting social observation was to watch and see who left their scarves on indoors, despite having shed their coat upon entering. This was almost always a clue that said person was either 1) already suffering from a cold or 2) felt one coming on and wanted to be sure to ward it off. I always found it a little funny in an endearing sort of way when, if I asked French friends how they were doing, they would point at their scarf and reply that they had a cold or sore throat, as though the mere fact of them wearing a scarf should have made that obvious to me upon sight. When we saw our friends a week later and noticed that they took off the scarf with the coat, it could be safely assumed that they were feeling better. Always a good sign.

How the temp could rise when this place got packed

I found it funny, but it turns out that it may not be as quirky as it first seemed. A couple of years ago, I was researching natural remedies for sore throats and found an interesting treatment prominently featuring… a wool scarf. But, it is not the scarf itself which promotes the healing; rather it is the carrot poultice that is applied to the neck. Carrot apparently has properties that draw toxins from the lymph nodes, alleviating the pain of a sore throat. With the poultice against the neck, the scarf is then wrapped around to it hold the poultice wrap on and also to generate heat. It was weird enough that I decided to give it a try. And you know what? It worked. It sounds like the sort of thing a backwoods great-grandma would do, which got me thinking. An old folk remedy like this has probably been around for centuries. Somewhere in the French collective consciousness is a vague memory of it. As time passed, the carrots slipped out, transferring the memory of healing properties to the scarf itself.

This was mid-June. Spot the sick French person.

This is just my theory, mind you, but it seems to me to be a good one. It would be interesting to visit small French country villages and conduct a sort of survey to see if there is anyone who still remembers the carrot + scarf antidote. But I would be considerate and not dare touch a window lest I throw those French country mamies into a frenzy. Scarf or no, you don’t invite a courant d’air inside.

Edited to add: Mr. Gren reminded me of one of the funnier things that happens when the French are confronted with a courant d’air. While they’re clambering over each other to close the window, there are always at least a couple people exclaiming, “Ça tire! Ça tire!” — “It’s pulling!” As though the breeze were going to suck out their very souls. Who knows, maybe it would?

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