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.


Lucy said...

Windows like lidless eyes.
I feel over the 10 years or so we've been here the French seem to be a little more open to the world after dark, there's more light coming from houses in the evening's than there used to be. Perhaps double glazing is more conducive to this, from both insulation and security points of view - far harder to get through than flimsily secured shutters. We got rid of them when we replaced the windows a while back, we used to have hideous roller ones, and left them closed for a few days in November and came back to find the house freezing and running with damp.
One of the most annoying aspects of shutter culture is windows which open inwards.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thank you Lucy. Yes, you're right - I hadn't thought about that aspect of windows having to open inwards because of the shutters - but it is indeed very annoying, especially when you have windows throughout the house which go down to the floor, as we do. It means you have hardly any wall space against which to store things.

If we did put things in front of the windows, we wouldn't be able to open them in order to reach the shutters. The more I think about shutters, the more c**p I think they are...

Anonymous said...

In Montréal, as usual, we combined the best from French and English cultures ; we have shutters against the summer Sun, together with guillotine-type windows. Hé Hé.

Anonymous said...

For me a crucial element of summer in the Var was the opening early in the morning of all the shutters in the house. The sound preceded the arrival of the light because my own room would remained shuttered until I rose. But my consciousness of that diamond light would begin with the sound of the flat bars that secured the shutters by night swinging down.

Anonymous said...

There is an advantage to the windows opening inwards as opposed to outwards. They always open outwards in England, and my husband risks life and limb when he climbs out of our bedroom onto the top of the conservatory in order to clean the outside of them. I always wish that we had a choice, particularly as he gets older.

Anonymous said...

They don't seem to do much for sound insulation either. In fact in the place I stayed at in Languedoc recently they added to noise - rattling whenever a car went past and with each gust of what I presume was the Föhn.

I love how much you've got out of this topic - very metaphorical.