The French may have their much-ridiculed or envied six weeks of vacation—still but a fantasy for me, working in America, as for most of the world—but this is not to say that French women content themselves in summer with collapsing into a hammock and watching the cotton grow high (Actually, we don’t grow any.) In fact, most, myself included, seem to wake up a bit earlier and go to bed a bit later, taking full advantage of those precious few months of extra daylight. As long as I mind my equilibrium, I am full of energy, and it’s never so easy to do as in summer.
Whether in New York, Paris, Provence or elsewhere, the longest days are the most enlivening, the only limitation being heat, which can become oppressive—even in Provence. There are places where the broiling, humid outdoors of summer is simply unbearable; in such places, summer can seem a kind of winter, an interval of harshness from which to take refuge. (It’s no coincidence that summer and winter are the seasons that are also verbs. No one goes somewhere else “to autumn.”) I do not dispute the discomfort of people in these places, but to some degree, it is another way we have become victims of modern conveniences and modern expectations. Even in places where summer seems quite pleasant, people spend too much of it in an air-conditioned bubble as the standard for comfort has changed. As for those places that verge on the tropical in summer, there is no debating the matter. In Houston, for instance, a fascinating and vibrant town despite having won some years ago the dubious distinction of the “fattest city in America,” winter is mild while summer is harsh, with people scurrying from car to mall to car to house, if not fleeing to Colorado. (Some of the most elaborate “swankiendas” even have air-conditioned backyards.)
It’s sad to imagine summer as an event to be escaped, but in more and more places it has become that. It occurs to me that we used to make less evasive accommodations to nature, such as screened-in verandas, fans and plenty of lemonade; in the course of an agreeably slower but still active way of life, we would tolerate a bit of sweat (not the social abomination Madison Avenue makes it seem). I don’t think it’s coincidence that the fattening of America has tracked with the spread of climate control and television. We cannot go back to the way things were, but the goal should still be to seek out the season as one can, and not only during vacations. Summer is the interval of peak experience, a state of being and a state of mind, and properly speaking, not a time we should be getting fat.
If you do not seize the day, if you become a summer hibernator, you will be working against the season’s natural mechanism for preserving your weight equilibrium. Here it is en bref: Summer gives us a bounty of super-satisfying flavors, which, if consciously savored, steer us clear of offenders. The heat of summer is not conducive to overeating, as the body craves food rich in readily digestible energy and much-needed water and electrolytes. It feels great to be out and about, so routine exertion is easy, especially if we make a point of doing our walking early in the morning and in the evening. The urge to participate in summer fun also creates occasions for sports, however undignified: many who would never claim any prowess at softball can be dragged onto the field in the spirit of summer. Don’t be proud—go with it. I’m hardly a great swimmer, but whenever possible, I avail myself of one of the most joint-friendly and meditative of all activities. There is much to do because it’s fun. Thus not getting fat becomes a fringe benefit rather than the end in itself.
Lessons From Summers Past
On Saturdays in summer when I was a child, my mother would serve us a cold lunch on the shaded terrace overlooking the garden. The day would have started and ended, as it still does, with a tall glass of water. She took pains to be sure that we were never dehydrated; there would be a full pitcher, frequently refilled, all day long. Mother would bring a baguette, a couple of cheeses, some salami or ham, while I, with a visiting friend or two, would go to the garden to pluck a few tomatoes, some radishes and some fresh lettuce (we would rinse our pickings at the garden tap, never stepping foot in the house). That labor was rewarded later with free, exclusive access to the berry bushes; after eating our sandwiches, slowly of course, there was a digestive pause, and then we were each handed a little bowl with which to forage. It’s as if my mother knew we would otherwise just crouch there putting berries into our mouths without a thought for the others waiting at the table. We did, however, manage to make it back with bowlfuls for them, too. Afterward, we’d just sit and talk lazily till mid-afternoon. Even with the doors and windows arranged for a cross breeze, it was simply too hot at midday to sit indoors, much less to exert oneself outside. Evenings were when we played, and on the longest days it would be light out until ten.
We were left to our own devices in the big garden. Mid-afternoon, one of our neighbors, Madame Regnaud, would often come with a new children’s book she was reading to her grandchildren, and she would read us a story or two in the shade of the terrace; with our eyes shut, we could hear nothing but her voice over the happy chatter of the birds. Mamie would reappear around le 4 heures for the afternoon refreshment, not a goûter (snack) but glasses of lemonade she had made fresh, mindful of our need for water, especially in summer. It was neither tart nor especially sweet. Looking back, what strikes me most is not how much this scene resembles one from the nineteenth century but how remote it seems from the twenty-first. In fact, the pace of lifestyle change has picked up dramatically within only the past few decades.
Unfortunately, we seem to have taken little care to compensate for the things subtracted. Most children today would choose the air-conditioned family room, with the latest version of PlayStation by the light of the plasma, over sitting around outside in summer’s heat. Needless to say, it’s a different sort of conditioning in terms of comfort and pleasure. As for me, I’m quite grateful that to this day, given my druthers, on a Saturday afternoon in summer I can be found outside in a shady refuge amid flowers, a book in hand, a glass of lemony water or cooled herbal tea of mint or basil nearby.