Noël chez nous

Christmas treeThis 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?

La gourmandise

IMG_2715Among the desires that define the French, la gourmandise is perhaps the most universal.

It is not greed, exactly, although in excess it can be. Nor is it gluttony, although it is considered as one of the seven deadly sins. La gourmandise is the appreciation and enjoyment of good food. It is appetite. It is life itself.

Sometimes you will meet someone who says, “Je ne suis pas très gourmand.” Do not trust such people. They are either fibbing or deviants of some kind. For what is the appreciation of taste and texture, fragrance and flavour, if not a healthy enjoyment of life?

As we enter this month of indulgence, of chocolate and caramel, foie gras and fleur de sel, let us truly savour each treat we bestow upon ourselves and each other. To me that is the best part of this culture and this time of year. It is taking the time and trouble to prepare something that satisfies, whether in the freshness of its ingredients, the depth of its flavours, the originality of its presentation or simply the timeliness of its offering.

‘Gourmandise’ means different things to different people. To some it is spontaneously enjoying a crêpe at the Christmas market, to others a cornet of marrons chauds (hot chestnuts). Some prefer to be seated at table to enjoy finely flavoured macarons. Still others care little for sweets but let themselves go on the savoury – the cheese course, creamy or pungent, with ample chunks of baguette and two or three glasses of red.

Whatever it is, I say enjoy it. Pleasure is what counts, not calories or even cost. Treat yourself and savour the moment, but whatever you do, do it with gusto.

What is your favourite gourmandise? If you’re looking for inspiration, check out my top 100 things to enjoy in France and let me know what catches your fancy.

 

La joie de vivre

le-fabuleux-destin-d-amelie-poulainA funny thing has happened in France since the Paris attacks.

The French are rediscovering their joie de vivre. Not just because joy is what makes life worth living but as a defining principle. Finding joy in the little things is what makes us who we are. Sitting at a table of an outdoor café, that most quintessentially French thing to do, has become an act of defiance.

It’s a reawakening of sorts. An awareness of what is important, the values we share and the fragile nature of life itself. It is made all the more poignant by the fear that is in people’s hearts. France is in the throes of collective post-traumatic stress syndrome.

At the same time, there is a sense of resilience. That somehow, in adversity, we will be stronger. Perhaps it won’t last. But I get the feeling that a page has been turned and that, as much as people are afraid and that their ‘insouciance’ has been lost or at least compromised, there is on another level a renewed appreciation of the things we share.

We are seeing it in the brave letters from people who have lost loved ones or been touched in some way by the terror. It is a refusal to give in, to change, to let go of one iota of what makes us who we are. We owe it to all those whose lives were tragically cut short on that fateful Friday night in November.

It has occurred to me that lately I have neglected to put enough joie into my vivre. This is going to change. I know the things that bring me joy. Singing. Jumping. Snow. Creating. Moments of peace and solitude. From now on, those things will take a higher place on my list. While I’m at it, I might just tear that list into pieces and toss it on the fire.

Amélie stole our hearts with her naïve sense of joy and wonder in the world. May we all feel it, today and every day that is given to us.

What brings you joy?

Marianne in mourning

Marianne pleureTears and other public displays of emotion are not characteristic of the French. But while they may not smile and laugh all the time that does not mean the French don’t feel things. Deeply.

Marianne is in mourning. For three days the nation will wear black, mourn its dead, weep for so many innocent lives lost in Paris on November 13, 2015. There will be anger, there will be sadness and regret. These feelings will erupt only occasionally into tears and shouting. Mostly, there will be small acts of kindness, like those of the strangers who took in blood-stained victims from the street and let them shower, who offered food and shelter for a few hours until the siege was over. Like the gesture of this spontaneous embrace captured when shots last rang out in Paris.

There is no accordion music playing in the streets of Paris — not today or any other day. Paris is not the romantic city of postcards, of Hollywood movies, although if you spend any time there you will experience moments of pure magic. Perhaps you will love its joie de vivre all the more for the fact that it takes place against a backdrop of restraint.

I am not a Parisian but a little piece of my heart will always be there. We lived in Paris for most of 1986 before getting married here. Our apartment was in the 7th arrondissement, just a few blocks from the Eiffel tower. It was a short time but one that left an indelible mark in my memory. Paris is indeed a moveable feast.

There was a wave of terror attacks in Paris that year. As a Canadian abroad, it was the first time I had encountered machine-gun toting police in the street. We lived with what became for me the constant fear of bombs in the metro, in the cinemas and the shops. I learned the French word for terrorist act – attentat – and became familiar with the identity checks and security measures of the plan ‘Vigipirate’.

Like many of my compatriots here in France, I have felt numb since waking to the news of Friday’s attacks. Perhaps it was to be expected. Since we reeled from the cold-blooded murders at Charlie Hebdo in January, there have been many reported terror attempts – fortunately failed. Lest we forget, France is still public enemy number one of Daesh.

And like many of my fellow countrymen, I wonder why. Why are we fighting a war that cannot be won, at least not with bombs? Why can’t we fix our own broken social system so that French-born Muslims provide less fertile ground for extremism? It’s complicated and I don’t have any answers, other than the obvious one: life is precious. Any life lost to evil, whether in Paris or Beirut, must be mourned.

Marianne is crying but it is not out of self pity. Let us shed a tear for Paris, and for her victims, but no more.

The world needs light and undying love and for this reason Paris will continue to shine.

Vive la France.

Remembering ‘les poilus’

W2289-Affiche14-18_PoiluType_0_94926The French would not be French if they didn’t do things a little differently.

Known to all in France as ‘le 11 novembre’, the day of remembrance traditionally commemorates the end of the first world war with the signing of the Armistice in 1918. It is really about the unsung heroes of that war, the soldiers known as ‘les poilus’.

Literally, ‘the hairies’, a better translation would be ‘the unshaven’. The term denotes not so much the facial hair as the image of the simple foot soldiers who left their fields and families to fight in the trenches. They are considered the unsung heroes of history as so many of their number died unknown and unrecognized for their sacrifice.

Lazare Ponticelli, a Frenchman of Italian descent, was the last surviving poilu. When he died in 2008 at the age of 110, Jacques Chirac wanted to bury him at the tomb of the unknown soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. True to his origins, however, le poilu refused the honour, preferring to be buried in the family plot.

The public holiday was officially changed by Sarkozy to the ‘Jour du Souvenir’ in 2012. It was meant to broaden the focus of the day in honour of all those fallen in service for France. At that time, so that the memory of the first world war heroes would not be lost, it was decided to reintroduce the French symbol of the poilus, the bleuet de France. The bright blue cornflower was the distinctive colour of the soldiers’ uniforms. It is worn instead of the poppy, although has yet to become as common.

poignee-de-mains-entre-francois-hollande-d-et-nicolas-sarkozy-en-presence-de-jean-yves-le-drian-gerard-larcher-manuel-valls-et-claude-bartolone-lors-de-la-commemoration-de-l-amistrice-le-11-novembre-2015-sur-les-champs-elysees-a-paris_5461328

On this day of remembrance in France, however, while our thoughts were meant to be on les poilus and the tomb of the unknown soldier, another image captured everyone’s attention. A handshake between two sworn enemies, who have apparently signed a truce in memory of armistice.

 

What does Remembrance Day mean to you?

 

Photo credit:

‘Les poilus’ cut-out: Wikimedia Commons - W2289-Affiche14-18 PoiluType 0 94926 » par G. Morinet pour Éditions Pellerin / Llann Wé² — Travail personnel. Sous licence CC BY-SA 4.0