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.

nativity?

(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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Reflections on being “home”…

This was written in June of 2007, shortly after returning home from a year spent living in Aix-en-Provence.

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I’m there…here…

When all is said and done, I’ve decided that going abroad is sort of like being a chronic not-dater. Nobody really gets it unless they’re in the exact same situation. So you end up sounding lame and whiny whenever you discuss said subjects.

Every time I begin a sentence with “In France…” or say, “When I was in France…” I feel like an unforgivable snob. And a poser. I mean, I wasn’t in France on vacation or anything. It wasn’t like I was pall-ing it up with Johnny Depp in his Villa. It’s just that, if ever speaking about France, I’m obliged to say “In France”, because that is, in fact, where I was. I can’t help that it sounds pretentious! But the other day I was talking to someone and I said “I haven’t been to the gym since I was in Paris!” (by the way, slight exaggeration, but only slight)…and they sort of rolled their eyes at me, as if to say “Oh right, back when you were in PAAAARIS. Sheesh.”

Here

In fact, I’m discovering that most people want to hear one of two responses when they ask the inevitable question asked to all first-time-back study-abroaders. And, yes, you know the question. It comes in a few different forms, but is generally the same. “SO, How was FRANCE?” or “Oh my GOSH, how was FRANCE?!?!?!” or even better, “So, FRANCE! Was it just completely amazing?”

The majority of people are looking for one answer: YES.
(The slight acceptable variation being: “Yes, it was incredible.”)

These people, who we will call the “Yessers” are slightly interested in you as something of an oddity for having not been around for the past year, but for the most part, you could’ve just been dead for the semester. Or you could’ve been really bogged down by classes and just not had time for your social life. Either way, to the Yessers, you’re back in their realm, on their turf and nothing has changed. You’re still the same person. You are unchanged. You have not matured or learned anything. You are who you were. And you couldn’t feel more de-valued by them than you do when you speak to them, because you realize that they honestly just don’t care what’s happened to you.

The Yessers are the worst.

Lost but home

The second group of people are slightly better, but only slightly. They are the “Anecdoters”. These people want the funny stuff. They want a few French Smoker stories, French kiss stories (if you have them), French food (and especially alcohol) stories … and that’s about it. You know what? I give MAD props to the Anecdoters just for trying as hard as they do. And they really do learn much more about the whole year than the Yessers, but ultimately, to them, you haven’t really changed much either. And you are integrated back into the natural grain of their lives without so much as a slight blip in the heart moniter.

To be honest, I can’t really blame everybody. Well, the Yessers maybe I can blame a little. But in all honesty, I have been home for almost three weeks and I have no idea what to think. It probably doesn’t help that I don’t know what to say when people ask. Even when it’s just a “Yesser” question.

It’s easier to pretend I was never gone. So much easier.

Sunset at Home

And then I realize that it’s been a year and everything and everyone has changed, but most of all that I’ve changed.

I miss speaking French. I don’t have anyone I can speak it with here, really. I miss living in France. It wasn’t all parties and sight-seeing and wine, you know? It was just real life in a real place. It was calm sometimes and stressful sometimes. I helped cook food and did my laundry. I went to the gym and did my grocery shopping and babysat for spoiled little brats. It was just life. And now, even thought it’s part of me, it’s just not there. Severed. And I know about 5 people that understand that.

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So strange. I wonder what I should think?

Marriage proposals, Stalkers and Rabbit Heads…

I wrote this way back in Fall of 2006, while studying abroad in France.

I just took the most incredible bath ever. Seriously, it was the stuff of dreams (or nightmares –depending on how recently you’ve seen the film What Lies Beneath€). This tub is the biggest tub I have ever seen. You could probably submerge a sumo wrestler without spilling water over the edges, or having to torque him into some funky shape, for that matter. So, there you go. That was my first bath in France. Why? Honestly? I needed the relaxation after today.

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I woke up at 6:30 am. I leisurely got ready for class at 8. I went to the Institut (about a 15 minute walk), and then I got there and realized that my class starts at 10 today! My 8 o’€™clock-er is tomorrow. BLAH. So I went home, only to come back at 10 and proceeded to live through a harrowing 8 hours of class. It’€™s like sitting still while people throw mental grenades at you. Actually, the first class is more like one psycho person with an Uzi. You guessed it, it’s the grammarian from Hell. But at least it’€™s a weekly reminder never to start smoking. It’€™s amazing that a well dressed, well educated person can be transformed from riches to rags with a smoker-voice and that god-awful smell.

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Next I had Monsieur B., who definitely just continued on from last week. I think he’s going for the world record of semi-drunken dictations. Plus, he goes off on mad tangents. So, today I learned almost nothing about French Institutions, and a lot about how Monsieur B. went parachuting with a hangover and got tangled in a tree. And then he had to drink beer out of some guys parachuting helmet or something. I tuned out the middle, so I got kind of lost. Hope he doesn’€™t test us on the tangents!

Off-Topic

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Then my last class basically taught me that, in France, the reason why everybody takes SO much time to do stuff (like, eat, for example) is because there is a LIMIT of hours you can work. Ready for this? The official, legal number of hours you can work (as of a 1998 law) is 35 a week! No matter who you are (although I guess there’s some exceptions in restaurants). So, I had issues digesting this, and all the other people were like “oh yeah, we have limits too!”. I’m sorry, but except for the Chinese girl, we’re all from DEMOCRACIES … what about civil rights? For example, the right to pursue happiness by WORKING? (Because this seriously can limit your income and therefore your capacity to pursue material happiness.) So, forgive the political tangent, but I spent the last hour of that class trying to explain (in somewhat broken, jet-lagged, brain-dead French) why I was so surprised. Needless to say, all of these things led directly to my first French Bath experience. Which I must say was a positive one. Thumbs up.

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My other “first” of the day (besides the bath) was a marriage proposal. Okay, actually, it would be my first in a long time, not my first ever, but those ones when you’re between ages 5-12 never really count anyways. So, there I was, standing at the vending machine getting my chocolat chaud between classes and all the sudden five guys walk in. Oh yeah. And one goes, the French equivalent of “€œHeeeeeeey!” and then another one goes “€œHey, I’€™m single and I’€™m looking for a wife!”€? and I couldn’€™t help it, I laughed. I was like, “€œOh really? Well, I’€™m single, but I’€™m not looking for a husband, so that’€™s too bad!”€? Geez. Guys in France are crazy. Their mothers must give them macho pills instead of Flintstone vitamins or something. I guess it makes life interesting!

Mr. Bean!

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To top the day off, I also ate rabbit for dinner. . . . for the first time. Never before had Peter Cottontail made it onto my menu. In fact, my sister once had a pet rabbit named Claudio. However, I am nothing close to a vegetarian and have long ago accepted where meat comes from. SO, I decided that I should give it a try.  About halfway through my first bite, my host father started talking about raising rabbits to eat. Then I told him that sometimes coyotes kill rabbits behind my parents’ house and we can hear it shrieking. And then (WHILE I was eating my serving of rabbit) he started mimicking the scream of a dying rabbit. Right about this moment, just as I was quelling the urge to feel nauseous, Madame Berthoud used the serving spoons to lift the well-cooked rabbit’s HEAD out of the pot. That’s right: THE ENTIRE HEAD. She offered it to me before serving it to Pierre. Let’s just say it’€™s a damn good thing I’m a confirmed omnivore. Lesser carnivores would’ve sworn off meat forever after a dinner like I just had.

That was my day.

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