Noël chez nous

When you make your home in another country, no matter how much you love it, there is always something you miss. For me it was Christmas.

Everything about the end-of-year holidays in France was different. Starting with the calendar. On Christmas Eve, while we were hanging our stockings and laying out cookies and milk for Santa, my French friends and family were still at table, eating things like oysters and foie gras.

They didn’t have stockings but Santa mysteriously slipped in and left gifts for the little ones while the parents supped. On round three of champagne the adults would wake them to open their gifts and then send them back to bed. At least that’s what people told me: I never saw this with my own eyes. As a parent, and still an overly excited child myself, this was all wrong. How could the kids sleep at all knowing they had new toys to play with?

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We always did our own thing at Christmas in France, keeping up the traditions that I grew up with in Canada. In our house we played the traditional songs, stuffed our stockings and ate our turkey on the 25th. It was a compromise of sorts: my French in-laws would join us for a special meal on the 24th but Christmas Day was mine. My French family didn’t care much; they weren’t religious, Belle-Mère always reminded me.

Neither was I, but Christmas, while purely cultural, was sacrosanct. The magic of those mornings as children when we woke at dawn and were kings for a day. I needed to replicate that for my kids and somehow also for myself, even though the older I grew the more impossible it seemed.

Against the protests of my husband (The mess! The expense! What a waste!), we always had a real tree, which I decorated profusely. Unfortunately the French don’t believe in watering their trees so we never managed to avoid it drying out and having all the needles drop before New Year’s.

Candy canes were nowhere to be found so it felt like our stockings were missing something. There were no cinnamon buns for breakfast and I wasn’t up to making them from scratch so we had pain-aux-raisins or panettone. Washed down with a mimosa, no matter how early the hour, a tradition my family in Canada had recently instated. Belle-mère would raise an eyebrow, saying something about how we were starting early — at least until I offered her a glass. There is no better way to start a special day than a champagne breakfast.

It was impossible to get a turkey, at least in the early days, so we would have a chapon or pintade (capon or guinea fowl), which the butcher always assured me would be better tasting but didn’t do it for me. And there were never any leftovers, the best part of the turkey!

My husband could not conceive of a celebratory meal without a cheese course so that was another break from tradition. On the upside, the traditional yule log was always easy: the French ‘Bûche de Noël’ is excellent and in plentiful supply in every pastry shop over the fêtes de fin d’année.

There was rarely any snow in Lyon, although we sometimes got a few wet flakes or a powdery dusting. While the French howled about the horrors of the roads, I privately rejoiced.

On the whole, we did pretty well. We certainly didn’t starve. And I managed to ensure an  abundance of wrapping paper and gifts, treats edible and drinkable, that called up the Christmases of my childhood. Most importantly, I created a Christmas tradition for my kids.

What we couldn’t replicate was family and friends. No matter what, I always missed my tribe at Christmas. On alternate years, whenever we could, we went back to Canada for the holidays. Got our dose of fa-la-la and excessive consumption and were happy to settle for a simpler version the following year. And so it goes.

This Christmas is a Canada year for our family (the first in four since we’ve been back) and I am especially happy to be going away. It is pouring rain as I type this, the strikes over pension reforms are ongoing, the UK just voted themselves out by end of January and frankly, I’m done with the news. I’ll be switching off for the next few weeks and hoping to be back with my spirits revived in January.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy and most jolly of holidays. Hope to see you soon in 2020!

Millésime 1957

The year I came into the world people drove cars with fins that looked like this.

Just about everybody smoked.

Men and women still wore hats to work. Women dressed like this.

A new house cost less than $12K, and a yearly salary was around $4,500.

Elvis Presley was all shook up. Fans flocked to see him star in the movie Jailhouse Rock.

Heart throb Harry Belafonte crooned his way to fame with the Banana Boat Song (Day O) while bombshell Brigitte Bardot headlined in the French romantic comedy La Parisienne.

The frisbee was invented.

The cool kids were watching American Bandstand.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz filmed the final episode of I Love Lucy, a TV comedy about a screwball redhead married to a foreign guy with a funny accent. (Years of watching reruns of that show as a kid may have influenced me slightly).

The Russians launched Sputnik, starting the space race. The Soviet space dog, a stray from Moscow called Laika, was the first animal launched in space and, sadly, the first to die.

John Diefenbaker became Prime Minister of Canada, leading the Progressive Conservative party to victory for the first time since 1930. Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the Canadian parliament.

The Suez Canal crisis ended. Canada’s Lester B. Pearson, who would later be prime minister, won a Nobel peace prize for deescalating the situation with the first UN peacekeeping force.

The Treaty of Rome was signed, bringing about the creation of the European Economic Community.

The 44th edition of the Tour de France was won by Jacques Anquetil, who went on to win it five times.

French fashion designer Christian Dior died while on holiday in Italy. It was never confirmed whether the cause of death was choking on a fish bone or from a heart attack after a strenuous sexual encounter.

In 1957, the peak of the baby boom years, the life expectancy in the US was 66.4 years for a male and 72.7 for a female.

Millésime, by the way, is the French word for vintage or a year in which something special is produced. 1957 was a very good year and I am happy to have been born on this day.

Even happier to be here today to remember so many things that have happened since.

Where were you in 1957?

Or where were your parents, if you were still just a gleam in their eye?

La différence

It used to be like going home. Still is, in many ways. But now Canada is a place I visit, a trip down memory lane. The décor is oddly familiar, yet increasingly foreign. And I am like someone recovering from amnesia.

“I remember that!” I’ll think. Quickly followed by “That’s new!” and “What will they think of next?”

Arriving in Vancouver for the very first time, we noticed a great many things big and small. A forest of tall buildings, some of them of questionable architectural taste.

Used to Toronto’s intensely diverse ethnic population, we found Van City to be especially Asian. But like everywhere in Canada, an interesting cultural mix.

Food-wise, Sushi abounds, as does Indian. Coffee culture is on every corner. Not just Starbucks but also independent coffee shops where you can get a truly great cup of java. Not to mention mouth-watering Nanaimo bars and sourdough donuts!

The coffee is also mobile. On the street, everyone seems to be carrying a drink of some kind. But when it comes to alcohol, there is a holdover of historic British rules. At one bar, last call came at 10:45 pm!

Vancouver is a city in constant motion. In the air, sea planes take off and land along the sea wall. On the water, boat traffic of every description, including these sweet little water buses.

Everywhere, people run, ride, cycle, skate, walk dogs. We joined them and cycled around Stanley Park, one of the highlights of our week.

At intersections, the cheeping of birds tells visually impaired pedestrians when to cross. It took me a minute to figure out it wasn’t just a loud bird following us around.

Around town, crows have replaced our domestic flying rats, aka pigeons. We awoke each morning to their raucous cawing; in the streets we observed the constant scavenging of these big black birds.

Abiding impressions? People seem happy. They are friendly. They ask us how we are, where we’re from. I don’t really mind this; in fact, I quite like it. But at first, my reaction is entirely French: do I know you? Why are you talking to me?

The service is attentive, if perhaps overly intrusive. Once the introductions are over, I prefer wait staff to keep a low profile. Instead, we are continually asked how things are going, did we enjoy our entrées? (French confusion – they mean main courses), would we like another drink…? Husband becomes irritated with the freezing A/C everywhere and all the ice in drinks.

We begin to feel foreign. At home. Again.

After 30 years in France, I’ve been trained to speak French in public places. In Montreal, it’s natural. In Toronto, slightly weird. In Vancouver, definitely not the norm.

And then there’s the entirely un-French custom of the tip. In Canada, 15% is standard. Anything less is insulting. One place suggested 22% as the norm. The amounts are conveniently added when you pay by card, which virtually everyone does. But it does make the service culture seem a little excessive. Perhaps, compared to the good old French insouciance, a tiny bit fake.

It was time to go home. First, to Toronto, where both the time change (3 hours forward) and the bilingual road signs are a little more familiar. Then, after the Canada Day celebrations, and a good dose of family and friends, we flew back across the ocean to France.

I do love a good holiday. Almost as much as coming home.

How about you?

Outre-mer

Salish Sea

This week, we leave our usual ramblings and observations about life in France for a holiday outre-mer, across the pond to Canada. A postcard from the Salish Sea where this blogger has crossed not just the pond but the entire country to discover Canada’s western sea wall.

We’re just back from a catamaran tour with the Prince of Whales — a cool and breezy way to discover the beautiful Salish Sea, so named after the Coast Salish peoples who traditionally populate the coastal waters along British Columbia and the Gulf Islands to the northwestern United States.

They promised whales and whales they delivered! A pod of Orcas kept us entertained for an hour or more near the San Juan islands on the US side.

I did not know when we stopped in Victoria that the killer whales had in fact just made an unusual appearance in the harbour. I can understand how their presence next to all this water traffic might be disconcerting, but after all, they were here first! The place was hopping with sea planes, ferry boats and little water taxis. I wonder why we don’t have these in Geneva?

Then again, we also don’t have the seals, water lions or the cormorants that have completely taken over this little island.

These seals were so much a part of the scenery that at first I thought they were rocks.

All in all it was a remarkable day. We were glad of the blankets on board as the wind was brisk and the air quite chilly.

 

Also glad to have these just in case. Still, with whales nearby no one wanted to see a man overboard.

I’ll share more on Vancouver and Whistler before we go to Toronto to celebrate Canada Day next week. A plus! x

Le mur

The wall

There was a lot of talk about walls yesterday. The ‘anti-fascist protection’ one that came down in 1989, the year my son was born. The one that Trump has promised to build – and get the Mexicans to pay for. The one that Canada may need to hold back the tide of fleeing Americans. When Canada’s immigration site crashed sometime in the wee hours yesterday, well before the results were in, the writing was surely on the wall.

Sitting in France, working in Switzerland and with roots in Canada, I was surprised at how deeply affected we all were by the news that there would be a – gulp – President Trump.

We are not American, even though the US president is thought to lead the so-called ‘free’ world. My Canadian family and friends can rightly quake, living in the shadow of the giant and sometimes feeling a little like its 51st state. Culturally, we are distinct; economically, less so.

Switzerland is home to many expats, some of whom are my friends and colleagues. As much as I wanted the polls to be right, I had spoken to people – articulate, smart people – who admitted they would vote for Trump. I’d witnessed the hatred for Hillary, and the refusal of Trump supporters to take seriously any charges against him. What would it take, I wondered? Explicit evidence of child pornography? My gut told me the polls were a reflection of what the influencers wanted to see.

Here in France, as I listened to talk about the election results yesterday, I found myself thinking about the invisible wall that exists between us and the US. While there is a strong, longstanding friendship between the two countries, that barrier is real on so many levels – cultural, linguistic, political.

Watching a French TV panel that included Christine Ockrent, a respected journalist who is married to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) founder Dr. Bernard Kouchner, discussing Trump alongside a young blonde American member of the Republicans in France, that wall could not have been more evident. Although the American woman spoke French very well, the wall came down on the French faces as quickly and as surely as if a door had shut. Was it her very-American accent, her direct way of saying things or simply her open-faced support of the man who is perceived as a monster here in France?

Alongside her sat another woman, who had formerly worked for Hillary Clinton. Although these two women sat on opposite sides of the political spectrum, I was struck by the fact that they appeared to have more in common than they did with any of the French panelists. No matter what, Americans will proudly defend their country’s democratic process as being the expression of its popular will. The French, for all that they resist until death, will allow themselves to be led by their elected elites.

The wall is cultural, and it is also political. The French openly dislike anything so crass and populist and commercial as Trump. And although many will vote for Marine LePen and the far-right Front National, two things hold her back from ever becoming President: the first is class. She doesn’t have it. Nor does Sarkozy, which goes a long way to explaining why he was not re-elected and is unlikely to make a comeback. The second is that the political elites in this country, supported by the French people, will not allow it. The post-war fear of fascism is just too strong. So opposing political parties will band together in order to block what is seen as dangerous.

As much as this country has its problems, and you know that I have no hesitation in calling them out, the particular horror of a Trump in power would not happen here. Nor, with all due respect to my British friends, would a Brexit. But the two movements are not dissimilar, and that is another reason why it is frightening. Both seem to believe they can and should shut their borders, live as islands sufficient unto themselves. While this is harder to imagine in the UK, the potential economic fall-out from US trade restrictions is huge.

But whether or not they build any more walls, le mur is already there.