Saturday, August 18, 2007
French Particularities No. 14: Volets
Originally uploaded by Paul Keleher.
The French word for shutters is 'volets'. Here is what a web site of French words for children to learn says about the word 'volet' (being the typical French word starting with the letter V):
Volet (nm): a shutter; French houses all have shutters for security and insulation purposes as well as esthetic reasons of course.
(To deviate for a moment, the list of 'typical' French word on the web site linked to above is quite an interesting one, including the likes of 'beret', 'escargot' and 'pain'. It reminds us that there are no words of French origin beginning with the letter 'k' or 'w', only words adopted from other languages such as 'weekend' for example, for which there is no French equivalent apart from 'fin de semaine'.)
The word 'volet' might either derive from 'voile' meaning a mask, or from voler which means 'to fly' (referring to the physical appearance of shutters as a pair of wings). Perhaps the origin may have some link to the other meaning of voler which is 'to steal', the volets being a preventative measure against this.
That "of course" in the children's definition is quite intriguing. Why is it "of course" that we should find shutters aesthetically pleasing? I'm not disputing the fact. I remember that about twenty years ago my parents had shutters fixed to the front window of their house. It was not a kind of house that you would particularly associate with having shutters, but the shutters looked okay when they had been afixed and indeed they did improve the appearance of the house, even though they were painted a non-descript fawn-type colour. They had no fancy decoration, they were just a washboard of slats, and yet they worked in their intended aesthetic role. Even though they did not work. They were mear steel plates screwed to the wall, unable to budge an inch...
As far as I'm concerned this is the perfect shutter solution, because shutters are a pain in the proverbial. As the definition above tells us, all houses in France have them for security purposes. This means, in fact, that if a burglar calls, and you are not at home, and your shutters are open, then your insurer will not pay up. Imagine, if you have shutters all over your house, and you want to nip out for a newspaper. You have to go around to every window closing them, catching your fingers on rusting latches, slipping tricky locks into place. And do they even work? I'm sceptical. I don't think ours would last long against an experienced burglar with a good strong jemmy.
Because every house in France has them, and because they are a pain to keep opening and closing, they give the whole country a particular character: a character of being shut up, closed for business. It is possible, at any time of year, to find towns in which whole streets look as if the Black Hand Gang just rode in. Streets in which every house appears to be asleep, threatening you silently not to even think about ringing the bell. And yet there will be life inside. Life that has forgotten about the need for daylight and contents itself with the mumbling of the TV and the sound of children squabbling.
Don't be misled by the comment about insulation. I don't think shutters are really able to keep your house warm. They are mainly effective in keeping a house cool in the summer by blocking direct sunlight from entering. Useful during a canicule summer (French heat waves are called canicules), but not much help during this year's dreary August weather.
So what is it that is so aesthetically pleasing about a few slats? Is it just the power of association with Mediterranean Europe? It's true that green or blue shutters are pleasing to the eye, but even my parents' fawn shutters were okay, so I have a tendency to believe that it is perhaps something anthropomorpic. Something about not having a gaping hole on the front of your house with nothing around it. Something about needing a frame, as a face benefits from being framed by locks of hair, or as eyes need eyelashes and eyebrows around them to provide character (and not to keep off the poisonous droppings of birds, as one of Nabokov's characters would have it).
This year we went away on holiday to Italy. We had a hotel room with plate glass windows looking out at the Dolomite mountains. It made a nice change from the farm house in the Dordogne we usually rent, which is perfect apart from one thing: about twenty sets of shutters.