Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Christmas Spirit in Dijon and the South of France

I mean, feeling the Christmas Spirit shouldn't be too hard when the view out your window looks like this:



Yet this year, something was missing. I had been trying to pinpoint hole. What could it be?


Was it the taste? Something didn't taste right.


I wasn't craving freshly baked cookies. My family sticks to brownies, but I'm not yearning to eat those either.


I'm certainly not craving my mother's homemade pecan pie (because I'm allergic to nuts), nor am I wishing to eat her fruitcake.


I think I know what the absent factor was: Eggnog. That is the one word that sums up my taste. Specifically, the Publix-brand eggnog that I purchase from said supermarket. I haven't had any in over two years, and this is going to be my third Christmas sans lait de poule.



Oh, the French eat salmon, foie gras, escargot, shellfish, caviar, wine, turkey and drink champagne throughout their Christmas feast, but the mention of eggnog receives an instictive "beurk!"


"How could you possibly drink that?", my shocked students asked with disgusted disbelief.


"For the same reason you eat fatty goose liver and snails cooked in a garlic butter sauce: it's delicious."


I'm almost tempted to make some eggnog on my own, but knowing my patience when it comes to cooking eggs, I might just succeed in making a creamy, cinnamon-flavored egg soup instead. Mmm, yum...


Something didn't sound right. The music which I have grown up listening to was missing in the background. Over time, I've incorporated some French Christmas songs like Petit Papa Noel and Vive le Vent to my repetoire, but I still need to hear Brenda Lee belt out her rocking beat.
Luckily, this year, I brought a CD from the States to fill the gap. I spent the last couple of weeks in the school year teaching my high schoolers about Christmas in the States and played my music. We rocked out to Jingle Bell Rock and Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.


I tell them how we like to hang stockings by the chimney and how bad kids, instead of being awarded with presents, receive a lump of coal in their stocking. The new vocabulary throws them off and their reaction is the same one I have become accustomed to seeing with most of English my lessons:


I translate.


"The chimney is une cheminée, a lump is un morceau, coal is du charbon and a stocking is a type of large sock, une grosse chaussette."



In unison, they serenade me with a glorious wave of comprehension.


They tell me when they were children, they were threatened by Saint Nicolas's meaner cousin, le Père Fouettard. This deranged version of Santa Claus whips the naughty, misbehaved children who cut off the cat's whiskers and didn't eat enough vegetables during the year. Next to Père Fouettard, a lump of coal doesn't seem so bad; at least you get a present regardless of your behavior.

At least I had the music, but something didn't look or smell right.

I inhaled deeply. The stark absence of a certain fragrence made its presence known. I glumly stared around my room. The boxes of of Christmas decorations that I had accumulated in two years caught my attention. Suddenly, it hit me. I knew what was missing: the perfume that comes from a Christmas tree!



I felt like such a dork. I had the ornaments but not the tree. What was I to do?


December 17th

I went out and bought a Christmas Tree.


Never mind that I was about to leave on vacation in two days. Never mind that I would only enjoy my tree for only 48 hours and leave it alone for a week. I had promised myself that I would have a real Christmas tree this year. Last year, due to a mix of Ebenezer Scroogeness from lacking money, I didn't have one. I instead opted to have a Christmas Branch.

Yes, you read that correctly. A Christmas Branch.

Last Christmas, with the help of my landlord's wife, Isabelle, I went outside and cut off a branch from a pine tree. I then strung it with the handful of Christmas trinkets I had purchased last year. Here's the proof:


That wasn't going to happen this year. With stubborn determination, I went to the closest Carrefour hypermarché and bought a mini Nordmann tree and a five euro strand of blinking white Christmas lights. I couldn't hide my excitement.





Then I realized that I had to haul all of that on the bus. And that I had to navigate my steps and try to keep my balance on a minefield of icy snow.












As I tredded cautiously to prevent an unwanted spill, something inside me rejoiced. The sight of my neighborhood carpeted in white and the brush of the glacial wind that burned against my cheeks just made me feel...alive.

Once I got home, I made myself a strong mug of Colombian hot chocolate.







I would have made one for my roommate (who was busily cramming for an exam) as well, but she is highly lactose-intolerant. She did, however, brighten up my room by helping me decorate the tree.



Ta-da!




Now that I had a Christmas tree, I decided that it was time to pack my suitcase and tidy up my apartment before I headed off to the South of France with Mimi and her husband, Alain.


And, like any trip, getting there is only half the fun!


December 19th



While driving down the French autoroute, where we were occasionally robbed scalped with huge tolls just to get to the South (it was almost 60 euros), I was able to see the stark changes as we travelled past Burgundy's snow-covered rolling hills, the Rhône-Alpes's impressive snow-capped mountains and, finally, down to Provence's rocky hills and its tall, proud cypress trees.








(Voilà. La Bourgogne and its frigid landscape.)


December 20th - 23rd


And once we got to Provence...we were greeted by storms and the legendary mistral winds. Out of the entire week that we spent there, we had only two nice days of blue skies and sunshine. In the meantime, we waited for Mimi's daughter, Sophie, to join us before so we could set up the Christmas decorations together. We passed the days by shopping at a mall, buying groceries and entertaining some of Mimi and Alain's old college friends. Alain cooked his splendid, mouthwatering meals for our guests and I helped make some mojitos for the apéritif.








I think that I made the mojitos a little too strong, though. One of the (rather eccentric) guests went on an unforgettably lengthy monologue in which she openly and matter-of-factly talked about urine, feces and erect penises...while we had dinner. The more she spoke, the more I wished that I could just disappear. Or pretend that I couldn't hear her. Just anything.








And I thought Americans were sex-crazed. I seriously needed some ear bleach after that...






December 24th


We drove to Marseille to have lunch with Mimi's parents at a restaurant. We got to the city by driving alongside the winding Gineste, a road that is placed dangerously high on the hills overlooking the sea. With every turn, my stomach lurched uncomfortably. I unfortunately didn't react and take any pictures while cruising on the Gineste because I was focusing on controlling my urge to blow chunks.



Once in Marseille, I braced myself for the glacial gusts of the mistral that threatened to either topple me over or kill me from the cold. I climbed up a park with Sophie and decided to take some snapshots of the sea.








My hair became a helpless victim of the merciless winds.







(See? Here's proof. Don't be fooled by the smile: I'm freezing my butt off.)



December 25th



Le Jour de Noël! Mimi's parents joined us from Marseille for the Christmas lunch. While sitting down for the apéritif, we opened our gifts. From Sophie, I got a spectacular plum-colored beret and from Mimi, a fragile, ornate egg bauble with a teddy bear Santa Claus inside!








December 26th

Of course, you cannot be in the South of France and not do some sight-seeing. On my last day, Mimi, Alain and I braved the cloudy skies and visited La Garde and the port city of Toulon!



La Garde



After glancing around the Christmas Village, we went to the Vieille Garde, where I went on a picture-taking frenzy.








Kitty!











Signs that are both in French and Provençal



















Posin' with the hills and my plum-colored beret!










The old-school communal washing machine






What I simply love about Provence is the warmth that radiates from the walls and the splashes of color from a rogue flower or wooden shutters that catch your eye.















At La Garde, I gazed upon the crèche the local church had put up and, sure enough, it had a parade of Santons paying a visit to the Holy Family.












Les Santons, the Little Saints, are very particular in the South. They are technically not saints.These terra cotta figurines represent several members of the Provençale community and are identified based on the objects that specify their crafts. There is a woman who sells garlic, one who sells fish, a shepherd carrying a lamb, a miller with a sack of wheat, a mayor sporting the French tricolore, even the village idiot with his arms raised in confusion (and so on...). They all sport the garb that was typical of the 19th century countryside. According to Alain, who is an encyclopedia incarnate, the tradition featured the community offering a gift to the their priest when they went to the midnight mass. Today, you see the crèche not only with the Holy Family being visited by the wise men, but they are also joined by the Santons.




I decided to add a Santon to my collection of French trinkets and bought a woman bearing a tress of white garlic.





Toulon




We arrived just in time to see the sunset by the port and take a stroll around town.


















I always have time for a coffee!










This is a sculpture based on the plays Marius, Fanny et César by the French writer Marcel Pagnol. Toulon is at one point a setting in Pagnol's works.


























The one Provançale tradition that I didn't do was the 13 desserts (probably because we ate quite enough food as it was). In France, Christmas dinner happens on Christmas Eve and the 13 desserts are eaten. I did however get a glimpse of what the 13 desserts were all about when on our way back to Dijon, we stopped for lunch at Alain's cousin's house. It was there that I got to have a piece of la Pogne!

After Christmas, French bakeries sell a type of almond-filling pie-pastry thing called la galette des rois, "roi" meaning "king." They are supposed to be eaten on the 6th of January to mark the passing of the 3 Wise Men. Of course, in modern-day secular France, this is just another excuse to eat something tasty with friends and family. The galette des rois functions as game: in its frangipane filling, the baker sticks in a little porcelain figurine called la fève (literally, the bean) and bakes the galette with it. In the tradition, the person who gets the slice of galette that has la fève is crowned the king, or the queen. This is especially exciting if you happen to be a child or an overly-excited American who still thinks like a child. The dubbed royalty then sports a fancy cardboard crown.

Now, as I stated earlier, I have a nut allergy so eating a slice of frangipane galette is equivalent to me trying to poison myself. I do no like to deprive myself: there are several bakeries that sell different kind of galettes with more allergy-acceptable fillings like chocolate and blackcurrant, but I'd rather not risk it and have surreptitious traces invade my organism. This is where la Pogne steps in and saves the day!



La Pogne is essentially the same concept as la galette des rois, complete with fève and cardboard crown, except instead of eating a pie-pastry type thing, one eats a large, donut-shaped brioche that is baked with dried fruits. I tried some last year, and I think that la Pogne is honestly one of the most awesome things I have EVER eaten. I was ready to have another slice this year.


On the way back to Dijon, we stopped for lunch in Sénas to have lunch with Alain's cousin, Danielle. Mimi and I stopped by the local bakery and she bought a chocolate Pogne because there were no more fruit Pognes.



So, after the lunch, I had my piece of fruit Pogne. Danielle handed the plate to me. My heart bat with anticipation. Would I be the Queen today?




I bit into my slice and...





I didn't get la fève.







Perhaps I would have better luck with a piece of "chocolate" Pogne. The chocolate was actually hazelnut-based NUTELLA, and it, too, didn't have la fève (rats). In fact, it seemed that Danielle had the best of luck because she got BOTH fèves!


Danielle gave me an extra piece of fruit Pogne so I could have it for breakfast the following morning. Lo and behold, imagine my surprise when I cut into my once-a-year treat and found this little figurine in the middle:



It was la fève! In MY slice! How was it possible that I got la fève when Danielle clearly got both of them? Perhaps she placed the little angel in brioche?


After my little moment of joy, I went straight to my tree and added my Santon to the nativity scene under my tree and hung Mimi's gift on one of the branches.







All in all, I had a very good Christmas!




Barb the French Bean

6 comments:

  1. It sounds like a wonderful Christmas. Thank you for sharing your pictures. They are beautiful.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You're welcome, Denise. It is honestly my pleasure. ^.^

    -Barb

    ReplyDelete
  3. Pretty pictures, pretty Christmas branch, pretty girl!

    I've never been overseas but I have celebrated Christmas in states like Texas and Arizona. Coming from a land of freezing white holidays, it was hard to acclimate to seeing cacti decorated with Christmas lights. :)

    Can't imagine trying to make it feel like home in another country but it looks like you've done it!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Lovely pictures! I don't believe I've ever seen a picture of you on your blog before either. Super pretty! Love the beret!

    I've never figured out how to wear one to make it look good though... Only knit ones that hang on the back of your head.

    Anyway, the scenery is super gorgeous, and I laughed at the post about the girl talking about 'interesting' topics at the dinner table. xD

    Good to hear about all your adventures!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I do believe that's the first picture we've seen of you. You're very pretty. I would say you're already hotter than Shakira. XD

    ReplyDelete
  6. +$3,624 profit last week...

    Get 5 Star verified winning picks on MLB, NHL, NBA & NFL + Anti-Vegas Smart Money Signals!!!

    ReplyDelete

Apparently, leaving comments on this blog is a hit-or-miss game of Russian roulette: you are either lucky and can comment away, or you are required to log in when the settings are CLEARLY set to allow trouble-free commenting (sorry 'bout that, folks). If anything, the Facebook page is always a viable option. :) -Barb