As the winter deepens, my French neighbours go into retreat.
It's as if grave danger looms out in the night and all must be home, shutters locked by the going down of the sun. Life still follows the old farming patterns where living is adjusted to the vagaries of weather and available light.
Apart from the chasse meetings, for shooting parties, and family Sunday lunches, all close into themselves, to only fully emerge in next year's first, faint, spring sunshine.
The supermarkets reflect this need to hunker down and wait for the worst, whatever that could be, to be over. Big packs of vegetables are labelled for the pot au feu; meat is cut to fill polystyrene trays ready for boeuf bourguignon or daubes, and in the markets the emphasis is on the earthy flavours of pumpkins, turnip and, increasingly, parsnips.
Parsnips have been on the food counters only over the past few years. Once they were thought fit only for the animals and even now the old women pass by them with a sniff of disdain.
Smaller shops, like my local Huit a Huit, have a hand-written explanation on how to cook them.
The British fall upon them with joy then complain that, not having been subjected to the first frosts, they don't have the taste.
Many expats, used to the far less temperate winters of their homelands, are still dressed for a late summer, although socks and loafers have replaced the flip-flops and strappy sandals. The French, who take a wonderful pleasure in finding everything either too hot, too cold or too windy, are in full survival gear. Come Toussaint – All Saints' Day (November 1) – even if the sun has a kind warmth, it is winter and that's that.
Puffas, ski jackets, little fur-trimmed boots and even hats jammed well over the ears must be worn now. Like the August holidays, when seemingly most of France takes to the road at precisely the same hour to leave for coast or mountain, it is as if a collective switch happens in the brain and out comes the winter wardrobe.
The British hold off as long as possible, not wanting to admit that living in the south of France brings with it winter temperatures as low as -15C.
There's also a trace memory of colonial days and a lingering dread of suffering cabin fever. To avoid such a fate, in total contrast to the locals, there's a frenzy of activity behind our closed shutters – well, theirs anyway.
Dinner parties are organised, activities signed up for, book clubs reconvened, watercolour classes transferred to heated rooms, ladies' lunch clubs put on full alert, curry clubs bulk ordering from Heather's Terre India.
Dog walking en masse is perversely more enjoyable, it seems, as the weather changes and rain pushes against wind-beaten faces.
God knows what the French make of one group dubbed, by themselves, the "gerry walkers" – as in geriatric. They walk, strung out in a long line accompanied by every breed of dog from a proud little papillon to a boisterous German shepherd, occasionally heading along the back roads.
The cry, "car," "car," "car", echoes back down to the end of the line, where the halt and the lame manfully struggle on. Once cross country, where the line straggles out to form, from a distance, an image of survivors marching from a disaster, the cry becomes "chickens", and echoes on and on.
At the end of what can often be a rigorous two-hour tramp, they gather for coffee, drinks and cake at the organiser's house to plan the next week's route march.
Much as I admire their grit, I could never take part, even if between us Portia and myself now have five working legs. Neither of us is much good at group activities and team effort and would end up miserable; moaning and groaning at the back, praying for the unlikely sighting of a taxi.
I have more the French approach in preparing for the long, dark nights to come. I have to really, as, thanks in part to this column, there are only a stalwart few left who take me into their homes these days. And since I've totally given up on the cooking, only doing aperos and bits, I now "pay back" by taking to restaurants, and being Norma No Mates has its advantages.
However I will never be French when it comes to playing bingo, or "loto" as they call it. Starting now and running all winter, it is the one activity that draws my neighbours out into the night.
Being innumerate in both languages, by the time I'd worked out the numbers being called, my chances of a cash prize, a live goose, or on one memorable occasion, a baby donkey, would have whizzed by.
So, I'll just have to hunker down with the fags, the vin rouge, the oven chips and the books.
Just like summer really, except inside. n
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