Autumn leaves and winter stays
The season has turned, the spooky names have appeared on twitter, and decorative gourds are on their way. I was in Antibes last week, looking at the fancy yachts. The summer season is winding down on the Med, and within weeks the cruise ships will begin their annual migration, as they head across the A to the Caribbean for winter. Some of the bigger yachts will also join this flock, or will be taken to the Indian Ocean or somewhere else.
It’s a seasonal shift that continues, despite tourism being now all-year-round in many places. And it’s a reversal from the patterns of a century ago. Once, Antibes and the rest of the French coast were winter resorts. People went there because it was milder than winter further north. Convalescents went for their health (the more temperate climate and sea air was recommended for the tubercular), while the wealthy and healthy went because it was fun.
But the idea of going there in summer, when it’s stinking hot, only appeared after the 1920s - and it was Americans pushing the change. They enticed Riviera hotels to stay open through the summer (previously they would close through the hottest months!). The American dollar went a long way after the First World War (as it does right now), and affordable travel brought more people from across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean coast.
Now it’s French people as well as foreigners who go to these towns in the summer. For France, the national tradition of the August vacation came with the arrival of greater workers’ rights, and paid time off.
Affluence brought the summer vacation to more people (though of course not everyone), as Fran Lebowitz noted in her wry advice for those who wish to meet the poorer individual, “Generally speaking, the poorer person summers where he winters.” Antibes is not really pitched to the poor: it has fancy restaurants and hotels, to cater to the yacht people, and also a Picasso museum (like apparently every city he ever visited).
But seasonality has become a blur. We eat salad in the winter, and our lives are no longer dictated by seasons, but some customs linger, ossified by habit. The way the school calendar breaks for summer is the ghost of an agricultural cycle of generations ago. There’s no logical reason for city kids to have weeks off in warmer weather rather than when it’s cold.
The logic is custom, and custom is habit and familiarity. There’s a passage in one of my favourite poems, “Dockery and Son,” by Philip Larkin:
Where do these
Innate assumptions come from? Not from what
We think truest, or most want to do:
Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style
Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got
Habits do harden into all we’ve got. But habits can be changed. Riviera hotels threw open their doors in July. We can remake things if we want to.