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!
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!
This Christmas we are staying home for the holidays. Seems like every year at this time I get all dewy-eyed about home and what it means to me. So here goes…
Over the years of living in France, Christmas is the one holiday that I have been militant about celebrating the same way as we do in Canada. This is purely cultural: we are not churchgoers or believers in anything other than Santa Claus.
I cannot speak for all French people, and there are strong regional differences especially in the Alsace, but the ones I know do not make the big deal of Noël that we do. As soon as December rolls around, I find myself compelled to decorate the house, bake cookies and listen to Bing Crosby. Within the family we exchange lists and buy gifts for each other, wrap them and put them under the tree on Christmas Eve. We hang stockings and fill them with so much stuff they inevitably fall down. The next day the house is filled with mess and chaos and over-indulgence. Personally, I would not have it any other way.
Here in France the traditional celebration takes place on the 24th. The children receive their gifts at the end of a long ‘repas du reveillon’, during which Père Noël is supposed to have mysteriously done his magic. When my kids were small I refused to do it this way partly because it seemed like torture to keep little ones up so late, only to crank up the excitement with gifts just before they were sent to bed. Also because I am the biggest kid in our family and could not have managed to calmly sit down and enjoy a fancy dinner with presents in the offing!
My beaux-parents never made a big deal about Christmas. They were happy to come to our house and follow the Canadian tradition. And yet every year we went through the same charade of me having to explain to them what would happen when, and they were inevitably lost when we went to bed early on the 24th in anticipation of the big day.
It’s been three years since we moved into our ‘new’ house and it’s only just beginning to not feel new anymore. The stairs are nicked and the walls are scuffed a little, the dogs have peed on the floor enough times to remove any illusion of pristine newness. Perhaps most importantly, we have made enough memories in this house for it to begin to feel like home.
This feels like the first real Christmas here in our new home. The first year was still very unsettled as we had only moved in October and barely had time to unpack our decorations; the second was consumed by the tragedy of my Belle-mère’s untimely passing just a few days before Christmas. Last year we travelled to Canada to visit family in Toronto. Now, finally, we are home for the holidays together here in France.
It is looking like it will be a green Christmas this year. We had a bit of white a few weeks ago but for now the temperatures are mild. No matter. We will light the fire and nibble on shortbread, sip champagne and listen to holiday favourites like this one.
Et vous? Will you be home or away this Christmas? How will you celebrate?
Both sides of our supermarket’s central aisle are lined with chocolate at this time of year. At least half of these are the Christmas holiday confection preferred in our parts: les papillotes. These brightly wrapped bonbons hide not only a delightful chocolate but a message inside, much like the fortune cookies we North Americans enjoy at Chinese restaurants. The difference is that the message inside the papillote is traditionally one of love. This is, after all, France.
Legend has it that a young assistant candymaker chez Monsieur Papillot in Lyon back in the late 17th century was inspired to slip love notes inside his confections as a way of gaining favour with the boss’s niece, who worked on the upper floor.
The fate of the hapless fellow is contested: some have it that he married his sweetheart (a happy pun if ever there was one), others claim that he was sent packing by Monsieur Papillot, who wisely retained the young man’s clever idea.
I cannot help but suspect a marketing mind at work somewhere in that story: ‘papillot’ plays upon papille, or papilles gustatives which mean taste buds in French. And to wrap and cook food en papillote is a longstanding cooking tradition. Peu importe, the ending is inevitably a happy one.
I open the cellophane bag and an unmistakable bittersweet fragrance wafts out: le chocolat. Could there be a headier elixir? I plunge my hand deep into the bag and pull out one of the tasselled wrappers, holding it up to the light. “Ganache” it says. Ha! It will be a good day indeed. With a gentle twist I pop the shiny wrapping to reveal the inner, waxen one, upon which is written my fate.
“Forgiveness, tolerance and wisdom are the language of the strong.” Hardly a love note, but this year the chocolate-maker, Révillon, has decided to go all dark on us, packing up the papillotes with African proverbs.
I bite into the deep, dark secret that is my daily advent ritual and decide that forgiveness is in order.
Have you ever enjoyed a papillote? What is your favourite way to eat chocolate?
People sometimes ask me: “Where is home? Canada or France?” The answer is both. Toronto will always be where I’m from. But after living in France for so many years, it is my home. Je suis chez moi ici.
A funny thing happens when I go ‘home’ to Toronto now. Everything seems really familiar. People speak my language, in my accent. I know all the street names. I feel like I belong.
It doesn’t take long for that feeling to go AWOL.
“This is my country, eh? I’ll do the talking,” I say to my husband as we line up at Canadian customs and immigration in Montreal. For some reason known only to Air Canada, our direct flight to Toronto has us deplane and enter Canada in Montreal before continuing on to our destination. Baggage, duty free and all.
My husband and I cannot go anywhere without arguing. He considers himself a seasoned and erudite traveler, and takes pleasure in showing me where to line up and how to do basic operations at those automatic terminals that check you in and print your boarding pass. Most of the time, when he is not overly lording it up, I will listen to his wisdom. But not on my home turf. He may guide me in Europe, Canada is all mine.
The customs agent, a friendly young fellow with a strong Québecois accent, wants to know the purpose of our trip and our final destination. “Visiting family, in Toronto,” I reply in French. He studies our French passports and landing card with interest before stamping them and waving us through. But not before saying something absolutely incomprehensible. The French Canadian accent stretches my adopted tongue into an unrecognizable form of the lingo. I nod and smile as we leave, then turn to my husband for guidance. He may be foreign but his grasp of French will always be better than mine.
“What the hell did he say?” He gives me a look to say, I thought this was your country?
“He told you that he had ticked the box for returning Canadian citizens. I think he was hinting you should have a Canadian passport.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I retorted. “I’m a French citizen now. Why should I bother keeping up two passports?”
“Because you can.” This is one of those silly arguments.
I repeat all the reasons I let my Canadian passport drop: it’s expensive, they have a special photo requirement, you need to have a guarantor. Besides, you don’t need a passport to be a Canadian citizen.
There are advantages to going through customs in the more licentious Québec rather than puritanical Ontario: no one questions our duty-free alcohol allowance. I had duly noted the allotted two bottles of wine on our landing card but neglected to declare a bottle of scotch and a magnum of champagne.
In Toronto, they often bring out sniffer dogs when you pick up your bags. I still remember how I trembled the last time we went through customs at Pearson aiport with two illegal raw-milk camemberts in a suitcase. It is strictly forbidden to bring in any plant or animal materials to Canada. I nearly fainted when a customs agent with a beagle wearing brightly colored Canadian maple leaf came right up to us before sniffing something more interesting in another passenger’s bag. “Relax, they’re only interested in drugs,” my husband whispered. Later, I almost fainted for a different reason when I unearthed those stinkers from our stuff. Never again, I swore.
Once we’ve arrived and settled in, I begin to notice that things are not quite as familiar as they first seem. We go shopping in downtown Toronto and I wonder where stores are that closed years ago. (“This is the Eaton Centre – but where’s Eatons?”). In the massive urban sprawl of the Greater Toronto Area, I am no longer on familiar ground. Christmas Eve finds me doing last minute shopping in Ajax, a remote east-end suburb of the GTA where my parents live. It is big box store and shopping mall paradise. I exit the mall and cannot find the car. I stumble around in the freezing rain, cursing to myself until I realize: this is exactly the kind of thing that used to happen to me in France.
I want to go home, like Dorothy. I tap my heels together three times and find the car.
All of this reminds me of a song from my teenage years:
By the way, I’ve decided to renew my Canadian passport.
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