Wednesday, December 17, 2008


I listened to the church bells strike seven this morning and knew it was almost time to get out of bed. In a couple of minutes, they struck the hour again, and I threw back the comforter. When we first moved in to La Bastiole, we were puzzled by the church bell phenomenon. It was strange enough, we thought, that we could hear the village church striking the hour, every hour, every day; why, though, did we hear the hour struck twice? Seven strikes, or twelve, or two, two or three minutes, and then, seven or twelve or two strikes again.

For a week we were certain that we were hearing two different clocks. La Bastiole sits on a hillside below one village and along from another. Each village has a church with a tower, bien sûr, and so we decided that the two clocks were not quite synchronized. Then one day we walked up the hill to our village and heard the bells strike, then, turning back towards home, we heard the same hour struck but from the opposite direction. The sounds were distant enough from each other that we realized that we could not be hearing both clocks from our house.

That left one explanation: the same tower was striking the hour twice. Seven o'clock; two minutes; seven o'clock again. It suggests a different notion of time, n'est pas? C is forever setting all of our clocks, watches, computers, ovens, telephones to the atomic clock, or Greenwich, or some international official this is what time it really is clock. He will wait until the second hand is at 59 and then ease the minute hand over, and then give a satisfied nod: one piece of the universe controlled. We come from people who are terminally punctual. They arrive on time. Our lives in America were punctual lives. Five minutes earlier or later was the difference between sitting an extra half hour in traffic.

So the matter of seven o'clock happening twice was mind-bending. It can only be seven o'clock once. Which time is correct? If you miss the first chiming, then won't your hour end up with only 58 minutes in it? While I find that my hours often have more or less than the standard 60 minutes, I did find it puzzling that the clock should strike the hour twice. And it wasn't just the clock we could hear: I found that in other villages the church clocks did the same thing.

I asked Olivier. At first, he looked confused at my question. Pourquoi les cloches sonnent-elles deux fois? Why do the church bells strike twice? He looked a little suspicious, like I might be trying to trick him with this silly question. Then he remembered that my French wasn't that good. In his best imitation of Yves Montand, he raised his eyebrows and shrugged. C'est comme ça, he said. It's like that.

I've never gotten another answer, and I've asked the question many times. I don't wonder about it so much any more. These days, when I hear the bells chime, I sometimes forget to count all the way to the end. Then I wait until they sound again, and start over. It's about nine o'clock. Time to think about taking a walk.


  1. Bonjour Madam Marron

    I love your blog – just discovered it on Expat Blogs.
    I’ve never known why the clocks strike twice, but it’s impossible to live in Provence and adhere to such strict time limitations. I do hope C doesn’t put your clocks right to the time of the bell ringing (ours certainly do not match the BBC pips !).
    My theory is that the first set is the real time and the second set is for people who live further away from the village and may not hear all the the first set. They can then tune their ears in to the second set to get the hour.

  2. I have just discovered your blog (followed your link on Ken's Saint Aignan blog) and I can see I have a lot of catching up to do!

    The only time I've experienced the double ringing of church bells was in the tiny village of Luby Betmont while staying at a friend's home. It makes me happy to learn that other villages do this as well. I like bfg's theory. ;-)

    I hope you are having a wonderful holiday in the US and I look forward to your return after the holidays.


  3. I like your bell theories, and am glad to know that I'm not the only one who's wondered about the double-ringing church bells. Thanks to both of you for your comments and welcome to La Bastiole!

    Mme Marron

  4. Y'all must be terminally punctual if you perk up and start counting bells as soon as they start ringing. Normal people don't work that way - they're talking, or something attention-getting, and then they become aware the bells are ringing. If it's one or two o'clock, that's usually fine. But I defy you to distinguish right off 11 from 12 (and this system started centuries before everyone had a watch and a cell phone and..). So the bells ring, and then if you really need to know the time you get a second chance to count a couple minutes later. It's not just church bells that work that way, but all clocks made before 1950 or so..