Picture a quaint French town filled with cobblestone streets and half-timbered architecture. We rented a cozy vacation apartment for two in the historic city center. As promised, an 800-year-old church was the defining landmark in the neighborhood, and the charming church bells merrily rang out a welcome. We traveled 6,000 miles from our home in Huntington Beach, California, for this storybook setting.
There is a nine-hour time difference between California and France. I knew I would be up late the night of our arrival. Despite the inevitable jet lag, I optimistically settled into bed with a good book and a sleeping pill at 10:00 PM. The church bells marked the hour with ten bongs. I thought it was a little late for the bells still to be ringing, but, then again, the French do not eat dinner before 7:00 PM. Maybe 10:00 PM is early in France? Besides, those gorgeous bells were a treat for us, as we never hear church bells in our beach community.
When we reached eleven bongs at 11:00 PM, I thought, “Well, that must be the last ringing of the night.” Alas, no. The bells rang out at midnight and then again at 1:00 AM. I finally fell asleep after the 2:00 AM concert. As I awoke bright and early, I found that the bells were still with us, ringing throughout the day.
I turned to my husband that first morning, and said, “Have you noticed that the church bells never stop ringing?” My spouse is an annoyingly good sleeper. When he decides to sleep, he simply closes his eyes and is dead to the world in approximately 30 seconds. So, no, he had not noticed. I, however, was obsessed by these bells. How could an entire French town tolerate the fact that the church bells NEVER SHUT UP?
Let me be clear: The bells don’t just ring on the hour. They ring every quarter hour. At 15 minutes past every hour, the bells ring one time. At 30 minutes past the hour, the bells ring twice. At 45 minutes, three times. As we approach the top of the hour, the bells ring four times. AND THEN, the bells ring once for each hour.
Quick quiz: How many times do the bells ring at midnight? Answer: 16 times. The bells ring four times to mark the top of the hour, and then they ring 12 times to signal 12:00 AM. Let that sink in. At midnight, the very loud church bells ring 16 times.
It felt good to crack the code of the bell ringing schedule. Then, as if to knock me off-balance, the church unleashed a new, seemingly random, bell-ringing cacophony that lasted for approximately 10 straight minutes. I checked the news—had an important leader died? Had the British invaded? I have scoured the internet and still have no clue as to what set off those bells.
By the second night, I knew what to expect. Every time I was on the verge of drifting off, another BONG jolted me back into jet lagged wakefulness. I finally fell asleep right after the 1:30 AM ringing. I turned to my computer to do some research, befuddled as to how the townspeople allowed this to continue. Our apartment was one of many in this neighborhood where real people lived and worked. We were just dropping in for a week, but how could other people exist like this on a permanent basis?
It turns out that the 24-hour bell schedule is a long-standing tradition in many French villages and towns. Historically, the bells were a means of communicating not only the time, but also important aspects of daily existence such as deaths, funerals, weddings, births, and church services. Think of them as an early version of social media or really loud group texting. Far from objecting to the bells, I read a recent news article about a town that had successfully protested a decision to stop the bells from ringing throughout the night. Another news article heaped scorn upon a tourist who had petitioned a mayor to stop the bells from ringing for the duration of her vacation.
My approach to travel is to try to experience the local culture. If I wanted everything done my way, then I would stay home. I like to eat the local specialties, drink the local wines, learn a bit of the language, and educate myself on the history and manners of the populace. I decided to stop being the ridiculous tourist who complained about a tradition that many locals treasure. If the French adore their bells, then I would learn to appreciate them!
The mind is a wonderful thing. As soon as I stopped fixating on the bells, they began to seep into the daily routine of our remaining vacation days. I ceased consciously noticing them, unless it was to delight in the beauty of their sound. At night, I used them as a timer to determine when I needed to put down my book and get some sleep. As in, “I will read for just 15 more minutes. The next time the bells ring, I really should close my eyes.”
I often wake up at least once or twice during the night. I have done so my entire life. As I grew comfortable with the bells, they became a companion in the darkness. At home, I only have a cheap clock with an unpleasant digital light to measure the hours. In France, I waited quietly for the bells to tell me the time and soothingly count me back to sleep.
When we returned home, I immediately felt the absence of those bells. More than simply tolerating them, I quickly had grown to enjoy the way they marked the progress of the day. Ironically, I particularly missed them in the middle of the night, when the house now seemed too quiet. I wonder how the residents of Huntington Beach would feel about installing a bell tower?
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