Despite my general hatred of winter, Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year. There is truly something magical about it, laughing with your family over a great meal, giving and receiving gifts, sending special messages to friends and celebrating. I’ve been living overseas for more than six years now, and have only managed to make it home for Christmas once (unpredictable Iowa winters definitely have played their part in that!). Up until this year, I’d never even really experienced a typical French Christmas. Either I was a nanny with a less-than festive family, or spending the holiday alone with my boyfriend who was far from accustomed to preparing a traditional Christmas dinner, or had just moved into my new house… This year, I decided, would be different.
I convinced Jé, who wanted to spend the holidays comfortably in our own home, that he should not overlook the family that he was lucky enough to have within a few hours from us. We had several options: a quick trip to England? A Parisian Christmas? Or a jaunt down to the South of France. As it turned out, his parents were getting ready to move and agreed that the extra mouths to feed would be a willing exchange for the helping hands. Jé took the car down on the Monday before Christmas, and I joined Wednesday night after work after less than three hours in my TVG, destination Avignon.
Upon my arrival, I knew that things would be a little complicated. The moving wasn’t going as quickly as they’d hoped, and the brand-new kitchen that was supposed to have been installed the week before, wasn’t. We spent the first night eating pizza from the local pizza truck and called it a night. The next couple of days were spent finishing up the move and waiting patiently for the workers to finish the kitchen. Luckily, I was able to meet up with a friend for lunch and some shopping in St. Remy de Provence, a charming little provencal town about 35 minutes from Cheval Blanc.
It was adorable. We spent hours roaming the streets and window shopping. I even picked up quite a few items that I’m really excited about, including a beautiful cutting board made of olive wood, some apricot and lavender jam, some freshly-made olive oil and lots of savon de Marseille (traditional French soap). We ate at a fantastic restaurant, where I was utterly spoiled with chicken salad toasts, tajine-style osso bucco and a delectable praline millefeuille* dessert. After lunch we walked off all the calories we’d just ingested, visited the most lovely chocolate shops, vintage shops, soap shops, cookie shops…
The next day Jérôme and I set off to visit one of the South’s most famous sights: Les Ocres (literally the Ochers, so-named because of the deep red color of the soil). It was awesome. An hours long trek through the woods, punctuated with burnt red, bright orange, deep golden yellow and sometimes even purple landscapes, wild thyme and rosemary growing everywhere, and hardly any other tourists. We took our time, stopping to take photos and basking in the amazingness of nature. We also walked through a beautiful old cemetery nearby and quickly visited the quaint town of Roussillon before heading back to Cheval Blanc and getting ready for the Christmas festivities.
I have to say I was a bit disappointed: since my in-laws were in the process of moving, there was no Christmas tree, not even the tiniest bit of decoration. There were thus no presents under the tree, no holiday music. What they did have however (and which kinda makes up for the rest) was an amazing spread of food, allowing me to finally sample a traditional French Christmas.
There was rabbit pâté and foie gras. There was fresh oysters and even fresher scallops. There was lobster tails and champagne. There was capon (I had never heard of this in America, but it’s quite common here; it’s apparently a special sort of rooster) and chestnuts. There was chocolates galore, and France’s traditional bûche de Noël* for dessert. We ate and ate and ate. We drank and drank and drank. I guess in Jé’s family, presents or no, that is what Christmas is all about. The French attach a special importance to food in their cultural practices, and holidays are of course no different.
While I definitely ate well, something was missing. Christmas back home was always light and fun, filled with laughter and joking around, time for catching up with those family members that we don’t see that often. This Christmas seemed stricter, somehow. There was less fun, and more seriousness. I felt like I had to be on my best behavior, at all times, even after several glasses of champagne, a couple of martinis and a glass of whisky. It wasn’t casual, and I found myself yearning for a good laugh with the people I love.
But, I suppose this is what really embracing a new culture, not to mention a new family, is all about. Things can’t always be just the way we’re used to. It wouldn’t be right, and it would make living abroad much less exciting and rewarding. I took it for what it was, and made mental notes of how I could improve Christmas next year, when I’d be on my home turf. I will strive to find the perfect balance between family fun and the sacred tradition of being à table*. Between showering everyone with gifts and just taking advantage of each other. Between laughing and really talking. Between over-the-top decorations and pretending that Christmas isn’t that big of a deal.
*millefeuille: literally a thousand layers, a dessert alternating phyllo dough and pastry cream or mousse
*bûche de Noël: A cake made with mousse and rolled into a log shape
*à table: Seated at the table and ready to eat; is also used as a call-to-table, as in ‘dinner’s ready’