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?

I'm dreaming of a...

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!

Téléphone maison

For me Christmas is about being with family. Like ET, I want to phone home. But when half (in our case, the bigger half) of your family is on the other side of the Atlantic, you have to make choices. I’ve posted before about feeling pulled in different directions when it comes to the year-end celebrations.

“What if we just forgot about Christmas and instead went somewhere warm by the sea?”

The idea came up when visiting Toronto last year. For once, how about we just forget the turkey and the tinsel and pack a suitcase instead? We have to pack anyway, and spend several hours on a plane, so why not indeed?

This year we are heading to Curaçao, along with several members of my Canadian family. It is a bit of a one-off. Never before have I been so close to South America. Never before have I spent Christmas in a sunny destination. I am curious as to whether I’ll miss the snow (but I rather think not…) but I am sure of one thing: it will be memorable. And the older I get, the more I realize that life is all about making memories.

I am saddened that we could not get everyone in my family to come but heartened that my Dad, who recently celebrated his 85th, will be joining us. House and home in France along with our ménagerie of bulldogs and cats will be cared for by our reliable service of travelling seniors who come to stay while we’re away (a wonderful concept for anyone here who needs a pet-sitter by the way — if you’re interested, ask me for details).

Wishing you all a wonderful end to 2017, wherever you are, filled with love and joy, and a bright start to the new year. Looking forward to catching up again in 2018!

Holiday hugs and grosses bises à tous mes blogging buddies!

 

Dans la joie et la bonne humeur

Foie gras - don't tell my daughter!
Foie gras – don’t tell my daughter!

Something strange happened when I hit the supermarché last week. The store was busy with shoppers but they seemed oddly unhurried. By the entrance the homeless fellow selling his ‘Sans Abri’ newspaper seemed rather upbeat. I may have glimpsed smiles on people’s lips as they flitted about the aisles, loading bottles and nibbles into their baskets. Une animatrice talked a joyful patter while selling off seafood at half-price as shoppers milled about. I believe I even heard Bing Crosby crooning out a seasonal melody over the sound system.

Qu’est-ce qui se passe? I wondered, filling up my cart as usual (after all these years I’ve never lost my North American habit of stocking up). Christmas is past and the sales haven’t started so what is everyone so happy about?

Then the cashier wished me a ‘bon réveillon’, leaving me scrambling to reply in kind. That was it! New Year’s Eve, the one day of the year you can be sure the French will be smiling.

As I posted way back when I first started this blog, I’ve never quite understood why the French are quite so enamoured with New Year’s. Beyond the big blowout on the 31st, there is real sentiment in France around the fresh start in January, and a feeling that our good wishes must be shared with all those we love.

Having neither party nor family to attend to that evening, we booked a table at a restaurant in town – our go-to solution for le réveillon. The few restaurants that are open on New Year’s Eve near us all offer un menu spécial – a fixed price, multiple-course affair with a glass of bubbly to start. After all the cooking and fussing over Christmas, I was happy to ring out the old year with someone else doing the service.

Death becomes her
Ghost of New Year’s past

New year's dinner 2016
Who can resist such artful presentation?

Out of respect for our feathered friends, and our daughter, who is studying to become a vet and has become rather militant about cruelty to animals, we had decided to henceforth abstain from eating foie gras. But when the restaurant had already gone to so much trouble to prepare such a lovely plate (shown in feature photo above), graced with truffle and onion compote, it seemed too cruel not to do it justice.

There followed a dish of white fish floating in a lovely sauce, then medallions of beef filet with a few veg for good measure and two desserts. By the time we got to the end I was feeling silly and playing with the table decorations.

Baubles from the table

How’s that for a bit of bling?

It was a fitting conclusion to a month of over-indulgence. The smiles are still on the faces of the people I pass on the street, probably at least until the end of this week. After a few more wishes of good health, and a slice of galette des rois, quite possibly accompanied by a few more glasses of champagne, it will be time enough to get back to normal.

‘Dans la joie et la bonne humeur’ is an expression that means, quite literally, ‘with joy and good humour’. I’ve often heard it used with a degree of sarcasm, however, referring to the need to pick up the plough and carry on with a smile. New year’s oblige.

Bonne année à tous!

Boules de Noël

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It’s almost Christmas and around here that means a bit of sparkle. Here in France, our sapin takes pride of place by the window, hung with lights and garlands and boules de Noël.

One of the mysteries of the French language is why decorations are always called ‘boules’. Christmas balls is a decidedly unfortunate English translation of what we would simply call decorations, rather like the little lamb’s balls from this post of blog years past.

Not having much of a mind for history, I was nonetheless consumed by seasonal curiosity to wonder about the origins of ‘boules de Noël’. Wikipedia reveals that the tradition goes back to the 16th century when the first Christmas trees were decked out in natural bounty like fruit and nuts. One day an inventive glass-blower from Germany had the idea to create balls of glass to hang on the tree. When drought brought a shortage of apples one year, the tradition of ‘les boules’ came to France via the northeast region of Les Vosges.

Our balls are duly (and not dully, as a French colleague of mine used to write), dusted off and hanging in all their shiny splendour from the tree. They are not just pretty but provide a reminder of how fragile are such celebrations. They hang upon a thread of close-knit families, traditions and good health. They depend upon good will towards one’s fellow man and a bit of bounty to share with one another.

I love Christmas but struggle with what we put around it. The gifts, the decorations, the feasting. The squandering of time and money, the stress to get the right things and over-indulge.

And yet there is a core idea of purity around Noël that I cling to from childhood: a fresh field of snow, a star in the sky. A carol sung with joy, familiar faces at the door. A warm fire with a drink waiting inside. A full heart when a fond wish is granted.

I’m off in search of that holiday magic for a couple of weeks. May your days be merry and bright until we meet again next year!

 

La crève

La creveJ’ai chopé la crève.

Caught a nasty cold. None of your average, run-of-the-mill sniffles for me. I do things with gusto.

Interestingly, this French slang word for ‘rhume’ finds its roots in the verb ‘crever’, meaning to pop or burst (as in a flat tire) as well as to pop one’s clogs or kick the can.

It started on Christmas Eve. A low-grade flame in the chest, nothing more. I was fine for the first couple of days, amped by holiday spirit and frequent doses of champagne and single malt. But by Monday last week I was flat out. Coughing up a storm and a head so injected with fluids I had to breathe through my mouth while applying multiple tissues to my nose. It felt like I was drowning.

I hadn’t had a cold like that in years. What the heck happened? Random bad luck or the year-end flushing out of various demons? A few days before I had been to a concert in a church, a place where I would normally never set foot unless to sightsee. I am a sucker for Christmas music, though, and was also scouting out a choir to join in the new year, one of my resolutions to do more things that bring me joy.

Next to me in the crowded church sat a woman who was snorting and hacking away, clearly in the throes of a miserable cold but oblivious to the fact that she was spreading germs while ruining the concert for others with her coughing. It is not done in France to avoid people with colds but after half an hour I couldn’t take it any more, so I got up and moved to the back. The damage was done, however, as 48 hours later I came down with the same symptoms.

The French don’t suffer sickness in silence. They run to the doctor at the first symptoms for a prescription and then to the pharmacy for a boat-load of drugs. Unfortunately they also don’t keep their cold germs to themselves. People go to work and social events with full-blown symptoms which they’d be better off hiding under a blanket for a few days.

I didn’t go to the doctor, nor take any drugs beyond a bit of paracetemol. I am no martyr but I don’t believe in miracles. La crève requires bed rest and plenty of fluids, which is what I gave it (mostly without alcohol). A week later it is almost gone.

So I am starting out the new year with renewed health, and a determination to stay that way. A couple of dry weeks, plenty of garlic and ginger, early to bed and lots of exercise. And if any of you have colds, please stay the hell away.

How’s your health this season? Please share your tricks and tips for keeping the cold germs at bay!