Valentine’s Day in France

As French is the language of love and France is the land of lovers, le Jour de Saint Valentin or Valentine’s Day is an important ‘Fête’ or feast day in France.

Flowers in Le Jardin des Tuileries
Flowers in Le Jardin des Tuileries

Three Saint Valentin are listed in the calendar of saints’ days and one, of course, is February 14.

The day has been celebrated in one way or another, in France since Roman times, first as the feast of Juno, then as the day (in the middle of February) when animals coupled for spring births. By the Middle Ages, the day had become a day for couples (human, and strictly male and female) In an age where to be single was to be in a precarious, if not dangerous situation, especially for women, le Jour De Saint Valentin became a day for match-making. The tradition of the “loterie d’amour” was born. This involved single people of all ages descending on the houses across the street and calling through windows until they eventually found a match. The man was supposed to become the woman’s champion and protector for the following year and then, hopefully, her husband. But all too often the woman was rejected out of hand. No mention is made of rejected men, so presumably that never happened. The spurned women took their revenge that night by burning the rejecters’ effigies at a public bonfire and hurling abuse at them. The practice got so out of hand (or the men felt so threatened) that before too long, it was banned.

A kinder tradition is the one attributed to the Duc D’Orleans. Imprisoned in the Tower of London after the battle of Agincourt in 1514, he wrote love letters, cards and poems for the love of his life, his wife in France. The tradition lives on today as “la Carte D’Amitié” or as we Anglophones call it, the Valentine’s card.

The place to be in France, if not the world for Le Jour De Saint Valentin is the little village of St. Valentin in Indre, the central Val de Loire region, which has in 1960s dubbed itself the ‘Village of Love’. Then in the 1980s the Mayor created a Lovers Garden (Jardin des Amoureux) and inaugurated the annual festival of Saint Valentin.

During the three day festival, the village is decorated with red roses and lovers from all around the globe flock to Le Jardin des Amoureux. Couples can get married in the gazebo, plant a tree to commemorate their love and pin hearts or love tokens to the Tree of Vows or Tree of Eternal Hearts. Out in the village, they can letters stamped at the St. Valentin post office, buy chocolate hearts from the local chocolatiers, dance at the Bal de St Valentin and eat a wonderful St Valentin repas

Life begins in Milan

It was about this time of the year, perhaps just a little later, that we arrived in Milan. Nobody I knew had nothing positive to say about the place. It was cold, it was old, it was dirty, it was shabby, it was industrial, it was ugly.

Via Taormina from our balcony
Via Taormina from our balcony

Nothing, however, could dampen my enthusiasm. It was Italy! Cold! Who cared, with all those museums, art galleries, cafes, bars, restaurants and shops offering warmth and shelter? Old? That meant history and heritage – Roman ruins and streets where Leonardo Da Vinci had walked. Dirty and shabby equalled character. Industrial? – Ferari factories and fashion fiera! Fabulous! Ugly? Well beauty, in my book, was confined to the eye of the beholder. I was determined to see it!

Old, beautiful, characterful and sunny! I thought, as we broke through the clouds and circled a city lit by watery winter sunlight.

Our taxi careened along the freeway, steering its own path, or so it seemed, while the driver talked incessantly with both his mouth and his hands, turning, and even leaning, from time to time, over the front seat to look us in the eye. My grasp of Italian, at that stage, was hazy, but it was clear that he was expounding, with great enthusiasm, on the marvels of Milan. I responded with appreciative nods, smiles and with little gestures that I hoped would encourage him to keep his eyes on the road and his hands on the wheel. They were lost in translation.

“Ecco! Via Taormina!” he exclaimed, throwing both arms out in triumph, as we zoomed round a corner, past a church, into a street flanked by cars parked nose to tail and overlooked by a mix of buildings representing every age of construction from middle to modern. Via Taormina was part of the city sprawl that had swallowed whole and left undigested, a small village, with its church, walled gardens, stone houses and stables.

“Ecco! – La Casa!” our driver announced, beaming over the back seat and screeching to halt simultaneously.

Our Via Taormina apartment building was a chunky, stone edifice, of indeterminate age and undeniable ugliness. But ugliness, like beauty, is only skin deep and, inside, our apartment was beautiful. The rooms were large, with wooden floors, tall windows and furniture that spoke of household set up in a vintage somewhere around the mid 1900s . At the front, French doors opened from the lounge and onto a wide, sunny balcony that looked out over the neighbourhood. Potted bamboo and trees, covered in tiny buds, promised shade, flowers and fresh green leaves in a few months’ time. The kitchen was equipped with every conceivable 20th century culinary invention and utensil. Platters, plates, dishes, glassware and cutlery to cater for any occasion and any number of guests spoke of large family feasts and gargantuan cook-ups. In bedrooms there were beds with ornate headboards and dressing tables with doilies and ornaments. This was not just an apartment. It was a home and the presence of the life lived here was strong, close and welcoming. It wrapped around me like a shawl borrowed from a dear friend. I knew that I would be happy and that I would also be at home here.

This was the beginning of life in Milan.