Flashback: Holidays in France

This was written years ago, when I was living in Aix-En-Provence, in 2007. I thought I would share because it was around this time of year that all of the festive Christmassy things began to be rolled out!

It is November 26 and still feels practically like summer here in Aix-en-Provence. A bit blustery I guess, but in the mid-to-high sixties. Sometimes the Mistral blows in a shivery day, but all in all, its quite good weather. Despite the lack of winter, December is pretty much upon us here in France . . . which means it’s (drum-roll please!) Christmas time!!!!

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All up and down the Cours Mirabeau there are little cabins that are brimming with art, toys, soaps, flowers, jewelry, sweets, and clothing. One woman specializes in chocolates that look just like sausages and eggs. Another man does absolutely exquisite glass-blowing. One cabin is just stuffed full of porcelain chickens in all colors and sizes…randomly enough. There is even a fortune teller booth!

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Each little cabin has the same wooden frame and it looks sort of like the Cours Mirabeau has been taken over by Gingerbread Houses! But the artists and vendors have decorated them individually, so they tend to be personalized and are often quite . . . unique. AKA: ridiculously tacky. Let’s just say the lack of real snow inspires a whoooole lot of that lovely white plastic stuff. But there are several pretty ones all the same!

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Everything sort of has the air of a Carnival at the Christmas Market! Crowds of Christmas-ee people mill about through the cabins and go to see the somewhat-terrifying life-sized crèche at the top of the Street. By the way: Did you know that in French Crèche’s, they don’t put Jesus in until the 25th of December at midnight? But that doesn’t stop them from getting everybody else in place. And this is no ordinary crèche, oh no. It moves. That’s right. It’s electric nativity. You’ve got the works all plugged in, too. A sheep, a donkey, somebody that looked like a Catholic priest but I can only assume was a shepherd, Mary, Joseph and an ENORMOUS Ox.

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I actually think it was a Bull, to tell you the truth. But this bull must be on double time for his electric moovement (get it?), or there was a short in his fuse or something, because he just stands there and his head goes back and forth really fast. Well. Mad cow disease did start in Europe. Maybe they’re just being realistic. Which would explain why Joseph’s electronic movement makes him look like he’s swilling an imaginary bottle of liquor.

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(I don’t think I’m very impressed with this particular crèche. Don’t let this fool you though…there are AMAZING-ly beautiful hand-made crèches here in France and in Aix especially!!)

A little farther down, once you pass the cotton candy stand and the little “sleigh ride” (?), there’€™s a sort of a little petting-zoo set up around it. This particular petting zoo consists of some statue-like donkeys and two very shell shocked little reindeer. Poor little suckers. They’€™d probably prefer the North Pole.

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Music is performed live on a tiny little stage and broadcasted via speakers all up and down the Cours Mirabeau, which can sometimes be an unfortunate convenience. Yesterday there was some second-rate, Russian-sounding, Christmas-music-slash-opera. The woman had a voice like vinegar. Needless to say, that was not such a nice thing, but they did play “€œWalkin’€™ in a Winter Wonderland” at one point! It inspired me to cut out my snowflakes to put up on the windows for Winter!

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It occurred to me today that I have been in France for 70 days. That’€™s pretty intense. I love it here still. But I am homesick. (27 days till I go home, by the way!)

Thanksgiving was . . . different. I never really thought about Thanksgiving not existing in other countries. That would be like Christmas not existing. (Which I guess I am learning is sort of the case in some countries.) I started the day with three hours of class and I wished everyone a Happy Thanksgiving, even if it meant nothing to them, since I am one of two Americans in the class! Sophie and I were planning to go to the gym afterwards, but that just seemed a little too anti-Thanksgiving for me. I mean, I was already going to class and foregoing Turkey . . . but damned if I was adding the gym to that. So we found a British store (random, I know, but Sophie is from Scotland, so it was especially fun for her!) and ended up having Tea and Digestive Biscuits for Thanksgiving Lunch. It was . . . unique. But Sophie pretty much saved my life. I should write a story: How Sophie Saved Thanksgiving. Hmmm. It’s a thought. We even walked around Market a bit and we found a PUMPKIN! I made pumpkin pie on Friday, and it turned out very yummy despite the fact that I didn’t measure ANYTHING, which was good. It looks like I’m going to have to make more, since we still have a whole lot of raw pumpkin chilling in the kitchen.

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The hardest part of Thanksgiving in France was sitting down to dinner right after talking to my family. And they were sitting down to dinner at exactly the same time. And I was very, very, very sad. I am definitely going to appreciate Christmas a million times more.

(Okay, this note is getting ridiculously long, but I haven’€™t written in a bit, so I will just write a few last things that are fun €œAbby-in-France things:)

My Thursday Teacher, Monsieur Chapus, took us all out for some wine last week after class. And I got some wicked pleasure out of knowing what Gordon College, my seriously dry campus, is paying for these aspects of my education here in France.

I am singing in an English Christmas Choir, and our concert is this coming Sunday and apparently the concert is usually attended by 1500 people! It is held in a Cathedral which is not far from my house! Hopefully that will go well!

My host-parents’€™ grand-children were here and I got to hold baby Zacharie and play Legos and Shtroumpfs (figurines of the Smurphs) with their three year old daughter Adèle. It made me miss my Hannah and my Lilly even more than usual, but it was still lovely!

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Well, that about sums up the recent news…if you happen to be in New York between Dec. 24th and January 4th, you should stop by because I’€™ll be HOME for Christmas!!!! In the mean time, I’ll be here in Aix, enjoying the Christmas lights!!!

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Good Christian Men Rejoice with heart and soul and voice…mad cow… and ass before him lay…

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My First Day of School: Abroad

I wrote this back in 2007, right after moving to France for the year, and I decided that it might be worth sharing. Every time I get nostalgic for travel and life abroad, it helps to remember that it was not actually perfect, as nostalgia tends to render events past. This is the rundown of my first day of classes in Aix-en-Provence . . . complete with angst and cultural frustration, as well as a healthy dose of humor!

The day started with some serious hairspray.

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Now, when I shop, I am definitely a sucker for labels and packaging (the proverbial book-by-the-Covergirl), so when I saw this new L’Oréal product, all dressed up in it’s gold label and welcoming me with it’s shiny descriptive title, who could resist?

Unsuspecting little me had just finished curling my hair and figured I could use a healthy dose of this Satin-spray stuff to make it last through the day. So, I held my breath and sprayed like crazy.

Unfortunately, then I started breathing again.

It was like a direct flash-back to sophomore year bio lab. That fetal-pig-like, cloying smell definitely had a strong resemblance to formaldehyde. That’s right, I think I might’ve just put pig preservative in my hair, because:

Oh.

My.

God.

This is definitely a strong scent. I was pretty sure it was hairspray because down at the bottom it said “fixation forte” so it’€™s either hairspray or some kind of strong glue. It actually seemed to be working reasonably well on my hair, despite the unholy odor, so I decided that it wasn’t worth a re-washing. I could deal with a little formaldehyde.I mean, I passed bio, didn’€™t I? Off I headed for my first day at a new university, hoping hairspray would be my only misfortune of the day.

If only.

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Not only was she a grammar professor, she was a talker. And not only did she have a love affair with the sound of her own voice, she was obviously one of “€œthose French people”€; one likely born holding a pack of ciggies who has spent most of her post-lycée existence smoking her way through excessively vehement intellectual conversations in bars or coffee-houses. Plus she has an accent AND constantly slurs like she has recently downed two-too-many cocktails. Picture your nightmare of an American secretary from the sixties and then hit the translate button into French on her voice box.So, welcome to your first three hour class, honey. Oh no, wait, 3 and ½ hours. So, welcome to Hell. Hope you don’t mind the heat.

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Trying to be positive about three hours of grammar every Wednesday morning didn’™t really make it through the introduce-yourself session. It’€™s hard to be confident and positive when everybody around you is a genius. There were nine people in my class. One works for the Japanese Office of Foreign Affairs and has two Masters Degrees. Another is trilingual (not counting French) and has her Masters in Translation. Another Egyptian guy has learned perfect French (at least, this is what the professor commented) in the past 11 months only and is taking a full class-load at the Institut while also teaching at a French middle-school. Another girl has lived in France for two years and has finished a Masters in philosophy at the University of Hamburg. Another is basically a young-adult genius (she’€™s seventeen, is traveling all of this year and is practically trilingual, although she will be studying Law and Spanish at Cambridge next year). I could go on, but it would just be dripping a little more lemon juice onto the open wound of my pride. The sad thing was I thought I’€™d finished with my serving of Humble Pie. Well, two hours of lectures on transitive and intransitive-ness of French verbs is enough to make you feel like you really know nothing, especially when you don’t know what that means in English. Damn whole language teaching methods. We topped off the class with “a little test, just to gauge how you’€™re doing” and a little public correction (a.k.a. humiliation). It was, without a doubt, a regretfully unforgettable experience.I think I understand why French people all smoke. I definitely could have used something to settle my nerves when I got out of that room.

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Thanks to intercontinental travel and my recent bout of in-flight air-conditioning and contamination, I a€™m coughing like it’€™s my job, so during my hour break between classes, I rushed back to Rue de la Mule Noire to grab some cough syrup and a little bread for lunch before I speed-walked my way back to the Institut. This is the part where I went up and down a total of 12 flights of stairs twice trying to find the right classroom. I won’€™t bore you with the details, except to say that I don’t know why you can’t just get to the entire second floor through one staircase. It seems a little counterproductive.

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So, a million years later when I found the right room, I sat myself down between a Chinese girl and a Scottish girl. Of course, the Scottish girl and the American next to her were speaking in English and I would’€™ve given a small appendage to just join in guilt-free. I miss being able to communicate, like a fiend. But I only let myself have a few words and then I went back to trying to talk to my new Chinese pal in French.

Fact: It’€™s hard to be truly friendly when you can’€™t even begin pronounce somebody’€™s name.

Finally, a German girl came in and started a really fun chatty conversation. The five of us girls basically have all of our classes together, since we’€™re all going through the classes for the “French Society Diploma”. I guess we’€™ll get to know each other pretty well.

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The professor who finally found his way into the impossible-to-access Salle Mistral was remarkably jolly looking. Seriously, if he had white hair, a beard, a slightly larger gut and the tendency to give lavish gifts to strangers, he could give Santa a run for his money. A little easier to understand than Professor Pack-a-Day the Grammarian, I started to enjoy this guy. He was dressed to the nines in a navy suit, whose jacket buttons were straining a little to hold themselves together. He would jokingly try to say words in English once in a while and every fifteen minutes, while talking about French Government and Patriotism, he would spontaneously start singing the French National Anthem at the top of his lungs. Definitely Amusing. He also let class out about a half hour early . . . which, today, means that he could possibly be one of my favorite people alive. Standing to leave the room, he announced: “Jeunesse de mon vieux pays, la France éternelle vous salue.” . . . to which we all must have looked as confused as we felt, because he then attempted a translation in English, saying, “Babies of my old country, take care and keep cool!” before leaving the room in a flourish.

The next class started out a little more awkwardly. First of all, when Monsieur G. started going off on a little tirade about how he couldn’t believe there were only five of us I sort of tuned out for a minute . . . only to realize that the otherwise-entirely-proper Chinese girl next to me was having some serious burping issues. She proceeded to burp constantly for the next two hours. So as I tell you about next class, picture two hours with the politely-burping wonder next to you. I won’€™t write each burp in, because that would take too long. I’€™ll leave it to your imagination. Just know that it was incredible. I have never heard somebody burp that much for that long. Not loud, because I doubt the professor heard them, but definitely unmistakable, although none of us acknowledged it.

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That was almost as weird as the physical appearance of our professor. When I first spotted him, I thought immediately of a jack-o-lantern, only less orange and with more teeth. I ha€™ve since changed my mind. He is either some long-lost descendent of Frodo Baggins or his mom cheated on his dad with a Sasquatch, because he is the hairiest man I have ever seen in my entire life. Bar nobody. And he wasn’€™t even showing any abnormal amounts of skin!

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The hairy Professor proceeded to have a very fast, very one-sided conversation about politics for an hour. Seriously, I don’€™t even hear people talk that fast on the street. Finally, German Girl looked at him and asked him to please talk a little slower. He didn’t really, but he tried, so that was nice. Despite that, he was very nice and we ended up having a lively political discussion about the practices of Initiative, Referendum, Impeachment and Constitutional Revision. After two hours, we all stood. Six o’clock in the evening and classes were finally over for the day.

It had been eight interminable hours, seven of which were pure lecture, but I had survived my first day of school.