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!

La Saint Sylvestre

Le champagneThere will be few fireworks in France this New Year’s Eve. In light of recent events, festivities are curtailed and firecrackers forbidden. Terror is still vivid in the hearts and minds of people here, not just in Paris but in remote corners of province. Restaurant takings are down; shoppers have been staying home. Traditionally the most fêted of the French holiday calendar, le réveillon du 31 décembre this year will be ‘en demi-teinte’ – a subdued affair.

But it will be celebrated. Ringing in le nouvel an in style is dear to French hearts. A party of some kind is called for – preferably fancy dress or at least ‘tenue de soirée’. Champagne corks will fly. In Paris people will flock to the Champs Elysées, along with more than the usual number of police.

Over the years in France we have celebrated le réveillon de la Saint Sylvestre in many different ways and places, with family and friends, at quiet dinner parties and more boisterous celebrations.

We recently watched an old VHS videotape – digitized through the wonders of modern technology – of a New Year’s soirée hosted by my in-laws in their suburban Paris home shortly after we were married. It was the late eighties, so the hair was big and the shoulders were wide. There were a dozen convives (guests) in sequinned evening wear – neighbours, colleagues, long-standing friends.

Things were rather formal at first, as we all sat in a circle and made polite conversation. They began to loosen up as the first flutes of champagne were served. We took our places at the table and the meal began with oysters, followed by foie gras. Various white wines were served, then things got serious with the Bordeaux. I believe we ate game of some kind. Then came cheese, an impressive selection of raw-milk fromages from Normandy to Roquefort. By the time we got to dessert, we were back on champagne. Then the real party began with a lot of frantic bobbing around on the dance floor. Thankfully the video was there to prove we were all still standing – things became a little blurry that point.

One memory stands out in my mind from that night, though. When the clock struck midnight we all embraced and exchanged our ‘voeux’ for the year ahead. The French make quite an art of this and I remember feeling rather limited in my repertoire of well wishes. But my Beau-père’s wish was simple, and sincere. He embraced me with a double-cheeked kiss and whispered in my ear: “Un petit garçon pour cette année!”

Our son was born the following September.

This year we are celebrating la Saint Sylvestre as a family in the Alps. There is not much snow, and we’ve had a few hiccups in terms of our health, but our spirits are high and we will see the new year in with joy.

What shall I wish you for 2016?