Sure, it’s a weird thing to obsess over. But once I noticed my first, it was impossible to stop looking for more. And I found them, all over France.
This story starts in Port de Vannes market on our first weekend together in Paris. This market is a veritable orgy for the antique browser, tables of cultural errata—from old ads for art deco jewelry to mounted antelope heads—displayed within a perimeter of vehicles with their trunks agape, showing the cavernous orifices from which these collections were spewed on to the street.
One table, and specifically one item on this table, grabbed our attention. It was an L-shaped metal object, a long and rather non-descript length of steel adorned by a women’s head. The head, which is further bedazzled with an old style hat, was hinged. I played with the hinge long enough to attract the attention of the antique dealer, who approached with an amiable French greeting.
Kristi responded with a textbook response, in French: “Sorry, we don’t speak French but we are practicing. What is this?” gesturing to the new object.
Her French is getting good, I thought to myself.
I listened intently to his response, stretching my severely atrophied high school French to its limit: “blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-WINDOW-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-WOOD-blah-blah-I-should-have-studied-more-in-high-school-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah…”
To my amazement, Kristi was tracking the entire conversation, nodding her head in response and using the more conversational form of oui: “wei … wei … wei …”
Wow, her French is really getting good!
Once they finished their discussion, we purchased a pair of these mystery items and walked away. The little devices baffled me so I couldn’t wait to find out: “So, what are they used for?” eager for her response.
“Oh, I have no idea what he said,” she responded with piercing honesty.
They were destined to sit for an eternity, unexplained, as decorative adornments on our bookshelves. A couple months later, however, while walking in the city of Toulouse in southern France, I looked at the exterior wall of an apartment building and saw a familiar face looking back at me.
My friend Tom, who was walking with me, was a bit startled by my reaction. Once I explained that I had been looking for the use of this little device—apparently holding open wooden shutters against the outside of the building—his surprise was replaced with concern for my mental health.
But when one door (or shutter perhaps) closes, so opens another. I began to see these things everywhere: Southern France, Northern France, out on the Atlantic coast, even a few in Paris. I began to take pictures wherever I found them, further adorning the future bookshelf with colorful images of the now demystified object “in the wild.” In my search, I found only two or three designs, but this woman appeared to dominate the market.
At this point, this post will only raise further concern for my psychological well-being, but I assure you that my interest in the subject is more than metallotrinketaphilia (yes, I made that up). I was fascinated by a simple fact: if a homeowner needed to hold window shutters flush with the exterior wall—an action that is performed daily in most French households—they apparently only had a handful of options at their disposal.
It’s a simple need, requiring a simple mechanical device, but I was surprised at the lack of variety in both mechanism and adornment. Anyone who has visited Home Depot knows the aisles are bursting with innumerable options for any project.
So why isn’t this the case for French shutter hardware? Regional identity, which is strong in France, doesn’t hold much water as I personally found the hardware in seven different, and very distinct, regions. It could be respect for tradition, a cultural trait that influences many aspects of French society, from architecture to cuisine. But perhaps the reason is more supply than demand; French society has a shortage of the types of people—entrepreneurs—who’d invent a new solution and build a company to take it to market.
I know I am extrapolating wildly here from a single, and quite obscure, data point, but several French friends, all of whom had experience abroad, readily confessed that the French weren’t the most entrepreneurial culture in the world (ironic, considering that entrepreneur is a French word). One friend speculated that the culprit might be a suffocating tax structure that’s cumbersome to small businesses; another thought that the negative connotation of extreme wealth in French society (and associated “bling”) would temper the principal desire—to make it rich, be your own boss—that sparks many start-ups around the world.
Other reasons cited online include “predisposition [French workers have] towards salaried jobs,” that French business is a “culture where bankruptcy is viewed as the ultimate disgrace,” and that France has “a vibrant investor community ready to commit funds, but only once an entrepreneur has a proven track record.” Young startups are faced with many challenges but websites, like the English language RudeBaguette.com, help highlight those who’ve navigated this societal morass.
But geopolitical and societal theories for her lack of competition aside, I still have no idea who “she” is; internet searches for “French woman window thingy” have yielded few substantive results (if you have an answer, don’t hesitate to leave a comment).
No matter who she is, or the reason why she is so popular, these two metal pieces will proudly decorate a shelf in our home. And at least I have a little more to tell people, should they inquire.
UPDATE: Thanks to Debbi, and the power of the Internet, we now know that these are called bergeres pour les volets, or “Shepherds for the Shutters.” How great is that name?